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Flash Review 2, 3-11: Flamenco Reactionary
From Maria Pages, Novel Approaches to the Form

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Maria Pages is a modernizer. Maria Pages is a reactionary. She brings both sides to the Theatre National de Chaillot through tonight in a spectacle that, seen Wednesday, collates flamenco to music as disparate as Astor Piazzolla and Tom Waits and celebrates this high art form as articulated in the male feet and the female torso, shoulder blades, arms, head, and visage.

"El Perro Andaluz" -- hey, it's just flamenco, why should the program list a year of creation! -- or "The Andalucian Dog," a title which echoes the Bunuel film, begins in a manner bound to deflate the flamenco purist: The music's on tape. (Not counting the music in the live performers' feet.) One doesn't need to be a flamenco insider to know that half the joy of the experience is beholding and sensing the way the dancers and musicians interact. The interplay is not just between the movement and the music but a personal one; the guitarists, singers, and percussionists -- even the hand-clappers -- are clearly regarding the dancer, and vice-versa; in the second part of the concert, Pages will dip her head back towards the musicians looking for a sign of hope, and then swing it back towards us dejectedly when she doesn't receive it. So when this piece began and it became clear the music would be pre-recorded, it seemed to me at first like half a show, the dancers almost cut off and distanced from the source. Low-points came when recorded clapping overwhelmed live stomping; recorded applause for a Piazzolla selection had the same effect.

Yet with the Piazzolla track (a dance to something from Peter Gabriel's "Passion," the soundtrack to Martin Scorcese's film of the same name, fell strangely flat -- perhaps because here the music was a dilution of the source, to a dance closer to it), it also became clearer what Pages was trying to pull off here, and why it couldn't be done with live music. One could certainly bring in a live tango ensemble but one could not resurrect Piazzolla, so what was a choreographic innovator to do -- nix the idea because she might offend some purists or a pigeon-holing gringo critic? This segment itself was largely nondescript -- what besides generic night-time atmosphere was a park bench illuminated by an old-fashioned street lantern doing at the back of the stage? -- until a circle formed around a couple, Pages and Angel Munoz, her swain for the evening. The tempo of the music had slowed here -- I believe a violin had kicked in -- and so did the mood of the dance, Munoz slowly circling his partner.

But somber is not where Pages lives; the first of many droll notes was introduced in the next segment, a rollicking cut-loose jam to...Tom Waits! If you've seen David Neumann's "Dose," a sort of scat dance to Waits's "Step Right up," you know this chanteur was meant to be danced to: his gravelly voice provides texture to ride, and his orchestrations offer percussion aplenty. The percussion here is tribal, festive, and Pages and her troupe of 12 rock out. Slant -- bodies at a diagonal to the floor -- is introduced, V formations -- a jump in which the butt becomes the triangle's apex and man!, do those hands and fingers shimmy, particularly on Munoz. As my colleague Anna Arias Rubio has pointed out in print and to me directly, flamenco is not the two-dimensional feast of angst and amour that some gringo critics would have it. (She didn't put it quite that way; I choose to use the word 'gringo.') I think some of us perceive it that way for honest reasons -- the passion is so unrestrained when the songs and dances do address love and misery, we've never seen or felt anything like it. (El Chocolate, the legendary flamenco singer, says in Jana Bokova's 1988 documentary "Voyage to Andalucia," screened recently at the Centre Pompidou here, that the cry of the flamenco singer comes from the wail of the newborn.) But really what this passion reflects is not so much a proclivity for these extremes, but the expressive power of the art. Pages knows how to channel this to and through humor. (She also knows how to explore the places in between; my companion -- and hopefully I'm expressing her thoughts accurately -- liked how she traversed and balanced on the continuum between the extremes, particularly in the Piazzolla duet.)

How then is Pages a 'reactionary'? Maybe 'throwback' is a better, less politically loaded word to use. As demonstrated in the evening's second work, "Flamenco Republic," she takes us back to pre-Amaya times, before the Lady in Pants decided flamenco women could give the men a run for their money in footwork. We are back in the land of the torso now, concentrated especially in the terrain that starts with an often-contracted belly, continues up into an expressive chest-plate, carries the weight of the world in the shoulders and frees it in arms I wish I had when my ballet teacher scolded me, "Get those arms back, Ben-Itzak!" If her head speaks tragedy, it's not over-wrought. Like any good actress, Pages understands that the way to act pain naturally is not to let it all hang out but to try to contain it. (When you're sad, you don't try to cry, you try not to cry. (Well, I don't, but you probably do.))

That expression turns to saucy during the work's penultimate segment, a duel of sorts between Pages's lady of the castanets and two men with canes. It's a challenge, Pages -- in a tight, short, form-fitting modern skirt, and she has a form, a relevant point here because she uses it, flipping her butt out provocatively (I don't mean sexually) -- laying down the first challenge with a castanet rhythm, the guys good-spiritedly matching her beat for beat with their canes. Finally she gets too fancy for them, and they offer a surrender of sorts, calling on their feet to aid the canework. This section, the 12-beat seguiriya (I believe), was choreographed (I believe) by Fernando Romero, who also took care of the farruca, a bravura display for the six men, featuring seamless break-outs -- one man peels off to stage right, a couple to stage left, before they all come back together in the center for a diagonal, fierce feet perfectly syncopated all the time. Will Smith? Tommy Lee Jones? Forgetabout it! These are my Men in Black.

The male stand-out was Jose Barrios, both in the aforementioned cane combo (I'm sorry, the program didn't identify the other man, also great here; I have a source for Barrios) and throughout the evening. The cooler, suaver Munoz got top billing, but Barrios, like Avis, seemed to try harder, particularly in a reckless segment where he loomed over the ground while his feet sped under him and he looked out at us in sheer borderline manic delight. Munoz was no slouch; his daring was more subtle, as he frequently danced at, and even landed on, a sort of purposely precarious slant. In poise and maturity he proved an equal foil to Pages, but I would have liked to see more of the fleet footwork for which he's renowned.

The women in black, or dark grey anyway, finally stepped up in the latter part of the evening as well, just before the cane-castanet battle royal; I don't know why, but for some reason the short, tight, modern dresses seemed to give them more confidence.

The fin de fiesta also had its original touches. My favorite part -- don't get me wrong, she was aptly powerful and moving, the high notes just unnerved me at times because we were seated close to the speakers -- came when the ensemble ganged up on singer Ana Ramon to clamp their hands over her mid-note. It's not that I wanted her to stop; what I liked here, again, was the sense of play. Singers are rightly revered in flamenco, and it takes a secure performer to be able to be knocked off that pedestal, even in fun. For this whole finish, the unaccompanied rhythm, to the chant "My Father, My Father" (in Spanish) was spellbinding.

Maria Pages and company close tonight at the Theatre National de Chaillot, turning the stage over tomorrow through Sunday to the queen of flamenco song, Carmen Linares, and the Gerardo Nunez Trio. For more information, please visit the Chaillot Web site. To see a video excerpt from "Flamenco Republic" on the Flamenco World site, please click here. You'll find the link to the video on the left-hand side of the page.

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