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Flash Festival Review, 3-2: The Spark
Chispa Negra & the Myth of Fusion

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- When was the last time you found yourself at a dance concert that moved your gut, your feet, and your mind? After noting that -- here in Paris, anyway -- flamenco is about the only form of dance (and music) I always look forward to seeing; after further noting what a joyous surprise it was to retrieve the sizzling young flamenco double-threat (she sings and dances) Sabrina Romero (you read about her here first), seamlessly added to Tuesday night's Chispa Negra ("Black Spark") act at the Cirque d'Hiver on three weeks notice and after just two rehearsals, electrifying when she suddenly left her singing chair to take the dancing stage; after adding that Diego Cortes surely stands shoulder to shoulder with his hermano Santana as one of the greatest guitarists of all time; after asking why on Earth artists like this continue to be largely ghettoized into one or two-night stands at flamenco festivals, while, meanwhile, broader events like this summer's just-announced and Anglo-weighted Lincoln Center festival ignore them; after these impressive thoughts, I'd like to start where my sister critic Joan Acocella leaves off in this week's New Yorker, to report that Cortes, Romero, fellow dancer Manuel Gutierrez and Chispa Negra leader Jose-Luis Gomez leave the notion of flamenco 'fusion' en migas, or crumbs.

Discussing 'modern' trends in flamenco, specifically in reference to a recent festival in New York, Acocella writes of flamencos in Spain: "After Franco, they were dumped out of what was basically a nineteenth-century aesthetic into the world of late-twentieth-century commercial trash. So, alongside the remnants of flamenco puro, or at least flamenco interesante, that's what we're getting: a marriage of flamenco with MTV. What will come of this? Last year, Robert Browning said, of the flamenco innovators, 'There is always the danger of ending up in a Las Vegas show. On the other hand, you have to be open to new ideas.' Nice sentiment, but how come the resulting product so often tips toward Vegas?"

Dear Joan -- dear, dear Joan -- I have good news for you: It doesn't! Acocella is referring in part to over-choreographed extravaganzas -- sometimes by legendary flamenco artists like Christina Hoyos who should know better. (And viewing flamenco in New York, she's likely also referring to a diet supplied largely by the tireless flamenco promoter Miguel Marin, whose impressive authority is sometimes undermined by misguided if well-meaning crowd-pleasing tendencies.)

Until Tuesday night, I might have agreed with her. But the fact is, Hoyos and others are less responding to the panoply of autre-flamenco 20th century influences than to what they think (or perhaps what the tour producer is telling them) American audiences want to see on a popular concert stage. And indeed, as Chispa Negra demonstrated Tuesday night in opening the Paris International Flamenco Festival -- and on the group's new CD to which I'm listening as I write -- it's actually possible to open up to the greater musical world and still remain true, in the heart and in the spirit of the spectacle offered to the audience, to the flamenco form's roots.

The company's PR, from its ambitious manager and the festival producer Flamenco Production, describes Chispa Negra as "avant-gardiste, modern, fresh" and Cortes as "one of the precursors of flamenco fusion in the 1980s." The inference of employing that word 'fresh' is that good ol' "flamenco puro" somehow isn't. But in fact, it is the base, particularly in Cortes's playing and in Chispa Negra's presentation.

For Cortes, that base includes percussion -- as when the musician clamps down on the strings and mutes the reverberation, in the tapao or covered manner, and the full scale of the strings, often sounded with the hands and fingers moving so fast they blur. If Cortes stretches that scale -- as, for instance, when he reaches to the higher register, plucking in a fashion that evokes the surf guitar of Dick Dale -- well then, isn't it only natural that living in the world, exposed to other influences, he would go there? But when he does explore like this, he certainly doesn't sacrifice tradition; nothing is lost here.

I feel even more confident in calling Chispa Negra traditional because, unlike the flamenco shows we see more and more these days -- a first half that is choreographed in a more narrative sense, followed by the more traditional 'tablao' after intermission -- this show is all tablao. No cheesy 'story.' Is it Las Vegas or do we need to even call it fusion simply because instead of a frilly dress, Romero dances in white slacks and a sleeveless black top? I think not! Carmen Amaya, the greatest of them all, wore pants too, back in the '40s and '50s -- albeit in her case the wardrobe change fit with her introducing more emphasis to footwork. I choose to look not at what the dancer's wearing, but at the way her hands and fingers wend while the rest of her body is still, as she watches, absorbed, the footwork of the Impossible Dream Manuel Gutierrez. If anything, the tight clothing makes more pronounced the curl of her spine. And seeing Romero in what might be described as civies -- as opposed to the more presentational gown -- almost does a better job of communicating (cliche alert!) that this is in her blood; that she has probably been dancing since she was three years old, and so it's second nature to her -- and natural to dance in her street clothes.

And sing! Indeed, more than the company's regular singer Maria-Jose Lopez, who's on the CD -- did I mention that Romero had just two rehearsals with the company before Tuesday's performance? -- if Romero's look is young and chic, her voice is ancient. It comes to us from long ago, memories in its tremors and the occasional lisp, and from deep within. If the singer is current, the song is eternal.

As for Gutierrez, I resisted him at first -- largely for superficial reasons like his heft and the Saturday Night Fever suit in which he first appeared (another modern flamenco trend, I'm told). But by the end of the evening, he'd won me over and had us all roaring after a tour de force marked not just by thunderous stomping but by quieter sliding as well. Like the best dancers in any form, Gutierrez embraces his body's distinct form, using it to advantage; his precarious leaning back and off-center to the point we think he might fall as he careens across the stage -- often on just one precipitous foot, or so it seems -- are all the more thrilling because of his relative bulk.

Romero and Gutierrez have both made giant strides in confidence since I first caught them two years ago, in Vicente Pradal's "Romancero Gitano." He has a confidence that really wasn't there before -- and is developing a unique, charmingly quirky style. Romero's singing has more assurance and maturity, while her dancing is more brazen. And this duality -- rare in flamenco -- adds an extra edge, whether she is dancing and you can still here her singing inside, or whether she is sitting down singing and can't stop her leg from pivoting in complete revolutions while she watches another dance. She's more arrived, more poised as a singer; I can't wait to see what type of dancing personality this 25-year-old forges in the years to come. And I can't wait for the return of the day -- wasn't always like this, dance insider! -- when dancing stars in her form are as famous as those in ballet.

The Paris International Flamenco Festival, produced by Flamenco Production, continues tonight at the Cirque d'Hiver with another star, Joaquin Grilo, and closes tomorrow with the legendary guitarist and composer Manolo Sanlucar.

Author's Note: While you shouldn't hold her responsible for the opinions expressed, Dance Insider flamenco editor Anna Arias Rubio provided factual counsel for this article.

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