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Charo Espino, Angel Munoz, and, in background, Paco Pena of the Paco Pena Flamenco Dance Company. Elaine Mayson photo courtesy World Music Institute.

Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

For Sonia, absent companion still present.

NEW YORK -- There have been many Flamenco flashes in the pan in recent years, legends in their own minds who seem so sure of their own prowess that they seem out of touch, and certainly not in touch with their audience. And then there are the grown-ups like Angel Munoz, quietly assured and confident, from the masterfully precise stamping of his feet through his eloquently poised trunk, poetically reaching arms and pivoting head, seeming to regard each person in the audience with twinkling eyes and a knowing familiarity. He doesn't need to rip off his shirt to make the women in the audience swoon, while the men like him because he's a man's man. His may not be a household name on these shores, but where a Flamenco company shows up that has a solid base even as it attempts to innovate, Munoz is often there anchoring the men, including the companies of Maria Pages and, in an all too brief one-night stand last night at Town Hall, the Paco Pena Flamenco Dance Company, whose every element, from its legendary namesake guitarist to its compas player Diego Alvarez, is perfect.

Perhaps because it's built around and by a guitarist and not a dancer, the Pena troupe, here presenting "Flamenco Vivo," avoids the malady which sometimes afflicts flamenco dance companies built around one star, whereupon he or she insecurely surrounds him/herself with weaker, often inexperienced talent, the women fading into the background obligingly, the men usually 20-year-old whippersnappers, energetic but lacking in aplomb. (The companies lead by men often avoid the risk of being shown up entirely by not having any other men, or sometimes even any other dancers, around.) Pena, by contrast, possibly the most popular, accomplished, and decorated Flamenco guitarist of the past six decades, has not only rounded up three stellar dancers -- the pantherine Sevillian Charo Espino and fiery Ramon Martinez joining Munoz -- and a pair of impeccable vocal powerhouses, Immaculada Rivero and Jesus Corbacho, but two additional guitarists, Paco Arriaga and Rafael Montilla, who can play in his league and to whom he even generously abandons the floor at intervals. And the dancers are not there just to decorate the music, thrown in to help sell tickets to those partial to the dance part of the Flamenco equation. Indeed, the second act opens with the musicians clumped off to the side, surrendering the bulk of the stage to the dance trio, who run with it, ranging the entire stage and playing with different levels, the two men more or less in synch as they flirt with and encourage the bordering on bawdy Espino.

Pena acknowledges the sexual appeal of Flamenco in his program notes, so I'm going to use that as license to talk about the particular attention paid to Espino's outfits. In multiple mostly solid and dark colors, sometimes velour, they cling to her body, but not in a way that's meant to be licentious but rather that appropriately highlights her tight stomach and sinuous muscles (and sets off her sometimes bare arms), even the low waist of most of the dresses spotlighting the center of her body and the way energy ripples out from it. But lest you should think this drew too much of my focus, Espino's premiere talent is the way she somehow manages to curve that gorgeous spine backwards in the opposite direction of her feet, even as her head turns in a third direction. She has a long body, which she uses to create a sort of diagonal plane that runs from head to foot, absorbing and reflecting back the music in every single inch.

As for Munoz, the first word that comes to mind to describe his presence is debonair. The best word to evoke his dancing is control, particularly the phenomenal way that his feet -- in two-toned boots, the heels mahogany, the rest black suede (I know they're suede because I have a pair of his old shoes; long story) -- move in rapid-fire beats even as his upper body, particularly those languorous arms, takes its time, the arms giving the space around them real substance. And all the while, he usual regards the audience directly. His body seems to be at that perfect age for a Flamenco man, exuding both fortitude and command, poise and -- when he wants it -- feet alacrity.

The tandem effect with the younger man is only beneficial to Martinez. If he were the only male on the program, his fleet footwork and spitfire turns might be taken as showy or even showing off, but in rapport with Munoz, it makes for a nice counterpoint. Think of them as an orchestra or even chamber ensemble, with Munoz the viola and Martinez playing pizzicato violin. As for Espino, as if her lively dancing weren't enough, the musicality emanating from every pore was rivaled Thursday by a turn she took as a simple musician, sitting down next to Pena to face off with his guitar with her castanets. Suddenly, this ancient Flamenco accoutrement was transformed from simple dance adornment to percussive instrument in its own right, its beat range extended when Espino occasionally cascaded the castanets across her powerful shoulders.

And while we're talking music, let's not forget the dynamic duende duo of Rivero and Corbacho, she warming with you with that hoarsieness only Flamenco singers can make sonorous, he haunting you with a toasted quality that surpasses his young age. When they combined with the guitar trio, I thought of a long-ago evening in the French country-side when I stood outside an ancient stone house (the same one where Munoz's old shoes are now imprisoned -- long story) listening to Spanish guitars while gazing up at pre-historic cliffs and sipping local red as a dead tree burned under a pitch black sky illuminated only by its flames.

Maestro Paco Pena. Elaine Mayson photo courtesy WMI..

And this brings us to Pena, whose only fault is that, for a critic focused on dance anyway, his selfless selection of the rest of the troupe risks making us forget to take notes on his own guitar playing. I see that he's described as an innovator, but this is not the kind of fancy innovating that forgets the source and leaves the roots in the dust. As ancient as the physical instrument seems to be -- his guitar is of an aged brown color, as opposed to the lighter spanking new tan hues of his colleagues' tools -- so his playing is also timeless. Were this concert playing a second time here, I'd go back and close my eyes for the duration -- not to block out the spectacular dance, but to lower the volume of my own distractions and hear the moving music better.

It's instructive to compare this concert with last week's, Carlos Saura's "Flamenco Hoy," also presented by the World Music Institute, this one at City Center, and not just because this time we got the fin de fiesta which Saura's group stingily deprived its audience of. (Here again, Pena made the perfect choice; instead of giving each artist his/her solo turn, he started and stopped with Rivero, who got to tear the floor up as a dancer, while the rest of the ensemble cheered and hooted her on.) At times Saura's show seemed almost garish. The lead male dancers and choreographers were ill-selected, the scenic elements random. It was almost as if Saura was too busy making movies to lend this production much more than his name. Pena, by contrast, was the quiet maestro in command of every detail -- and he did it with the less is more approach, at least as concerns the non-performance elements of sets and lighting. Generous with the musical and dance components -- three stellar guitarists! Two flawless singers! An impeccable percussionist! Three top-tier dancers! -- he was spare with the elements surrounding and framing them. The ironic results were that while it was Saura's fancy show that seemed geared to tourists, it was Pena's that put us in Spain, perhaps on a street in his and Munoz's native Andalucian city of Cordoba, as if we'd turned a corner and stumbled upon a group of local but virtuoso musicians and dancers throwing an impromptu street party.

Indeed, if I have one criticism of this concert, it's that it might have been better appreciated in such a setting. The problem with Town Hall is that the audience seating isn't raked, so... it's difficult to see the feet! For a Flamenco concert featuring dance, this is frustrating. While I'm grateful to the World Music Institute for placing me on the aisle so that I could peer out from time to time to catch the feet, anyone not in this position was not so lucky, particularly if they found themselves sitting behind a tall person. And as if this impediment to seeing the dance wasn't bad enough, the uncultured security staff of Town Hall further compounded it by deciding that they couldn't wait three minutes until the end of the show to descend en masse and from all directions on the first row, where a woman was doing something they didn't like, the result being that we were distracted from watching the finale, in particular the flaming finish of the crescendo the three dancers had been building up to all night. Unrealistic as this may seem given WMI director Robert Browning's pre-show pitch about his venerable organization needing new members even more now in the face of these hard times, this Don Quixote can only dream that one day the Brownings will have a performance space of their own, which they'll no doubt manage with better class than is typically the case at their long-time main NY homes of Town Hall and City Center.

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