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Flash Review, 5-19: Voyeurs to the Affairs of the Heart
Noche Flamenca Brings it On and Inside

By Anna Arias Rubio
Copyright 2005 Anna Arias Rubio

NEW YORK -- My daughter Antonia and I didn't think we would make it to see Noche Flamenca Friday night. A big pile up on the New Jersey Turnpike made our two-hour trip into a four-and-a-half hour marathon, but artistic director Martin Santangelo, his wife and artistic partner Soledad Barrio and company made the ordeal worthwhile.

Surprisingly, the small house at Theater 80, where Noche Flamenca performs through June 5, is only about two-thirds full when we arrive well into the opening piece, "Nuestro Son." There is no amplification in this presentation; only the dramatic and perfectly choreographed lighting by Mark London and Adam Gabel separates performer from spectator.

I had been looking forward to hearing and seeing guitarist Jesus Torres -- who is listed in the program but, as it turns out, not onstage Friday -- but am pleasantly surprised to see long-time Noche Flamenca collaborator Arcadio Marin move his chair to the front of the stage for a solo. Marin has a delicate touch on the guitar, but even without amplification I feel every sweet note in the intimate performing space.

Marin is joined by guitarist Eugenio Iglesias and cantaores Manuel Gago and Miguel Picuo for a piece in the flamenco rhythm of Tangos, choreographed by Barrio for herself and and Antonio Rodriguez. The rhythm of Tangos is typically danced as the finale or release/catharsis of a more serious four-beat rhythm such as Tientos or Tarantos, and when performed on its own usually reveals a lighthearted festive character. In this version, letras (lyrics) with a more serious, romantic tone are chosen and the choreography tells a story of love and reconciliation. The musicians' chairs are arranged in a tight semi-circle, making more apparent to the audience the communication between the artists which is the defining element of flamenco. Barrio usually performs in traditional flamenco dress, often showing her arms but covering the rest of her body with shawls, fringe and two-layer skirts. It is refreshing to see her finally show off more of her sculpted physique in a shorter, sleeveless turquoise dress, giving her the appearance of a miniature Greek goddess. You go, girl!

Rodriguez is a good match for Barrio. Many men would pale next to her seething intensity, but "El Chupete," as he is sometimes called, stands up fiercely, conversing, disputing and reconciling with his partner using modern, jazzy sounding footwork interspersed with the traditional, earthy, grounded use of the weight and sway of the hips usually associated with Tangos. The smoky lighting in this piece is spectacular. I feel as thought I am a voyeur observing a very private affair of the heart. This to me is what really good flamenco is about, this feeling that I am observing someone's dark night of the soul.

I hear all the artists on stage but would prefer the guitar to be a little louder during the footwork sections. In flamenco, the dancer determines the speed of a piece and the guitarists and palmas (handclapping) follow, but all are so interconnected that it is imperative that the dancer hears the other artists also. It occurs to me that without amplification, these world-class artists are probably working way too hard to generously allow us deeper into their world onstage.

The biggest surprise of the evening for me is the Alegrias danced by frequent Noche cast member Bruno Argenta. Argenta is known for his Farruca, a manly, controlled dance featuring sharp turns and long lines pierced with bursts of footwork in a four-beat rhythm. His technique is formidable, his multiple turns impressive, and his compas (rhythm) flawless, but he has never really moved me. He always seems a little cold and almost arrogant, though still blowing me away with his physical ability. In the twelve-beat palo of Alegrias he really gives himself room to let go. The singers take turns singing the letras that speak of boats and the beautiful Spanish port city of Cadiz, and Argenta accents and answers the singing with imaginative and complicated footwork. In his first escobilla (footwork solo) he describes patterns that seem almost impossible, such as one in which he rises on his heels and taps the toes of his boots together in counter-time. I am astounded; the usually haughty-appearing Argenta warms up and shows a kind of dapper Fred Astaire appeal that I have never seen from him before. For the first time I truly appreciate the amazing talent of this man I have seen so many times.

Rodriguez "El Chupete" performs a solo in the twelve-beat rhythm of Solea por Bulerias. This is my favorite palo in flamenco, the palo most like African-American blues. Solea por Bulerias speaks of frustration and someone doing you wrong in usually very personal terms; the rhythm pulses with a compelling downbeat.

While Argenta dances in long, clean lines revealing textbook technique, Rodriguez moves in an earthy and funky manner. He often clenches his hands into fists as he expresses the tension in the letras, "God will send you punishment for what you did to me" and "the blame lies not with me," for example. He punctuates the tension with outbursts of sound. When El Chupete goes into the Buleria section of his dance he is a wild man, marking the letras with controlled Jerez-style internalized movements and then letting loose with crazy jumps and fast, precise cierres (closures) that make me scream out, Ole!

Keeping with the tradition of absolute integrity that is Noche Flamenca, the singers are superb, not only in voice and palmas and involvement onstage, but in their choice of letras. They begin the Martinete in moody spotlights downstage, accompanied only by the unheard but implied ancient rhythm of the blacksmith's anvil pounding inside of them. Picuo sings first. He is very young and thin, with rectangular glasses giving him the appearance of a philosophy student rather than a flamenco, but his high-pitched voice reaches right into my heart. Gago then opens his rich, deeper, more experienced voice to hammer in that last nail, sending chills up my spine. Picuo and Gago face each other and step back from the light; Rodriguez and Argenta enter and take turns with furious footwork, finishing together. The singers join together in a sort of round for Barrio's signature piece, Solea. She is soft and still, listening to them describe the deep sense of loss and sadness that often begins the Solea. She takes her time as the guitar begins, and with her amazing feet demands the first letra from singer Picuo. Her strong body contrasts with her slender and soft fingers caressing the music. She responds to the letra with an outburst of sound and then demands a verse from Gago, even calling him by name -- "Manuel!" He sings, "I have lost the warmth of my mother and father and if I lose your warmth I will have nothing."

Barrio's dancing has evolved lately. She has always had that rare, raw, real intensity that draws you into flamenco and makes you feel witness to some ritual healing, but now she does not seem so desperate. She is still a thrilling and moving dancer, but has matured. She is allowing herself to use not only that raw power she undoubtedly possesses, but finally to draw on her lyrical abilities and beautiful lines to tell her story. It has been a privilege to watch her grow over these last ten years.

All flamencos in the United States owe a debt of gratitude to Martin Santangelo and Noche Flamenca. They have been touring tirelessly here, bringing only the best artists. Every performance is a testimony to the complexity and depth that is the art of flamenco. Soledad Barrio not only performs but has been bringing up the level of teaching in New York by offering regular classes at Fazil's (Times Circle Studios). I have been thrilled to have her kick my butt whenever I can get there. After spending the last year here in the US, Noche Flamenca will return to its home in Madrid soon. I urge all the flamenco faithful to try and see these artists in this very personal venue before they leave. (For information on showtimes, please click here.)

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