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Flash Review, 2-23: That's Entertainment
Sara Baras and the Face of Flamenco

By Anna Arias Rubio
Copyright 2005 Anna Arias Rubio

PRINCETON, NJ -- Attending the performance of "Suenos" by Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras at the McCarter Theatre February 1 was a completely different experience than attending any of the other presentations of the Flamenco Festival 2005. The crowd included only a handful of the usual flamenco suspects and instead was made up of mostly older Burberry'd academic types. The presentation was slick and the sound system, staging and lighting perfect. And I admit, guiltily, I was thoroughly entertained. Sara Baras is probably the most generally popular and recognizable flamenco dancer in Spain. She has been bestowed with several awards, including the 2003 Premio Nacional de Danza. In 2002 she was named "the face of Andalucia" by the Andalusian Regional Government's tourist board and also represented Dance in Spain on a stamp issued by the Spanish postal authorities. I saw her dance in a beer commercial almost every day throughout last summer on Spanish television. Her dancing entertains me, but she doesn't move me.

Baras's musicians, including guitarists Jose Maria Bandera and Mario Montoya but especially singers Miguel de la Tolea and Saul Quiros did move me. Throughout the show my eyes would leave the dancers and fix on these two remarkable singers.

The show begins with the musicians on three downstage platforms. With stage smoke billowing in, they begin a Buleria. The difference between Princeton's excellent, state-of-the-art sound system and that of City Center (which hosted the Flamenco Festival gala), even at the latter's best, is striking.

The cuerpo de baile is gorgeous and young; no dancer appears to be older than 21. The women's youth is accentuated by the lack of color on their lips; their faces are made-up to appear to be unmade-up. The company is truly a "Ballet Flamenco" -- it performs several very traditional group numbers, interspersed among the solos and duets of Baras and her guest artist, Jose Serrano, beginning with a martinete, complete with canes. The men wear black and the women red and purple with matching shawls. Martinete is a difficult rhythm and I am impressed by these young dancers' synchronicity as they tap their canes on the stage. I fight my normal tendency to prefer pure, jondo, individual expression-type flamenco so that I can enjoy the tight choreography and clean presentation of this super-trained group.

The women of the cuerpo de baile bring in the Solea por Bulerias in batas de cola with shawls wrapped around their shoulders. The background lighting is a deep cobalt blue, with gray and black on the stage. This gives the effect of a summer sky just before a huge thunderstorm, and highlights the white of Baras's dress and Serrano's black and white suit as they make their first appearance. Baras is known for the incredible speed of her footwork and with the excellent amplification on the stage, her feet sound like a machine gun. But the excited applause after each rapid-fire burst and her gesturing to the audience give the impression of a circus performance rather than a dance concert.

Baras and two men, Raul Fernandez and Raul Prieto, all three in black suits, dance the Farruca in front of a dark sky background with a projected full moon. Violinist Amador Goni takes the place of the cantaors. He plays in an Eastern European-Gypsy style that really works with the farruca. Baras is long and lean, and wound up tight like a cat ready to pounce. The three dancers form sharp V's and S's with their arms, and their turns are crisp and aggressive. In the traditionally male farruca rhythm, Baras's light speed footwork is totally appropriate.

Even though I enjoyed the show, I had trouble sitting through an hour and a half without intermission. After the excitement of the Farruca I could have used a leg stretch.

Serrano's solo seguiriyas were accompanied by the eeriest and most thrilling flamenco music I have ever heard live. The percussionist Antonio Suarez played the cajon and a djembe drum simultaneously, while the singers crossed each other, singing different letras simultaneously. The violin screamed insanely. The singers' palmas clapped a four-beat pattern over the compelling and complicated accents of the twelve-count seguiriya. I have no idea how Serrano is dancing, because I cannot take my eyes off the musicians, as they raise this frenzy to a terrifying crescendo and suddenly stop. I almost scream out loud. Only then can I relax enough to check out Serrano's dancing. He has a natural, earthy, Antonio Canales-style of dancing that appeals to me more than Baras's slick perfection, but the effect of his more sensitive touch might make him appear weak to the less purist flamenco fan.

I am bothered by the fact that Baras includes no biographical information on Jose Serrano in the program, and there was none in the press release sent by Flamenco Festival producer Miguel Marin. He has been listed as guest artist in several of her shows, but that's where the mention ends. I happen to know that he was a principal dancer in Canales's company and I think he deserves a little more attention.

Baras's solo in solea is elegant and feminine, with clean perfect lines and precise turns. The curves of her long arms and the sculpture that is her back is lovely to look at. Her solea is choreographed to every minute detail. I usually prefer a flamenco solo to have more of an inspired, improvised feel, but she does what she does so well that I am drawn in.

The way Baras constructs her show makes it appeal to people who might be put off by more "undergound" pure flamenco. This helps all of us who need flamenco to be popular to survive.

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