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Carlos Rodriguez. Jesus Vallinas photo courtesy Sadler's Wells.

Copyright 2013 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- 'In Progress,' a refreshing new initiative from Sadler's Wells which enables Flamenco choreographers to collaborate with other artists under the rubric of the London Flamenco Festival, in its first incarnation this spring provided a rare opportunity to see the fruits of a week of research by Olga Pericet and her collaborators in an "in-progress" showing at the intimate Lilian Baylis studio next door to the presenter's main theater. Pericet worked with London-based theatre designer Holly Waddington, musician/actor Sila and dancer/choreographer Juan Carlos Lerida.

Costume driven, the piece, seen March 23, is visually dominated by over-head ropes and pulleys, onto which are attached fragments of wedding dresses, all designed by Waddington. Pericet stands on a bench and pulls on a dress, dangling above her, which resembles a long, white stocking. She arranges it like a tight-fitting veil over her head and upper body and like a butterfly struggling to get out of its cocoon, shimmies cautiously along the bench. Within the confinements of both costume and space, she experiments with movement.

Part of what makes the work-in-progress riveting is watching Pericet and Lerida manoeuvring in and out of the outlandish costume, helped by Waddington, who is a frequent presence on stage as she helps the dancers into their costumes, and fixes the headresses and other accoutrements.

The final image from the work-in-progress is of Pericet in a stiff paper mache outfit which Waddington meticulously wraps her in, involving a corset, a voluminous but solid skirt, and an enormous hat. She could be Frida Kahlo dressed up as a Tehuana or a striking catholic icon.

Later on Pericet dances a duet with Lerida. He instigates the action by gently touching her on different parts of her body. She reacts to his touch, following an imaginary pathway. While there are elements of Flamenco technique and stamping, the material is infused with contemporary dance, fluid exchanges of weight and softer movements. At times the work begins to look like a Butoh piece in its slower repeated phrases, held positions, and strange white costumes. The score is experimental, concrete sounds mixed with rough Flamenco singing and spoken Spanish narrative. When Pericet goes into a stamping routine, she interacts with Sila, who is not playing a live instrument but orchestrating off his laptop. It's a truly modern collaboration.

Although the material here consists of a collage of uncooked fragments, it's exciting to watch and imagine how some of these raw ideas might be developed. It's also impressive to witness Flamenco artists who are adventurous and not afraid to show unfinished material.

Jesus Carmona. Jesus Vallinus photo courtesy Sadler's Wells.

The Flamenco Festival's gala performance, seen March 25, brought together an extraordinary line-up of Flamenco personalities, who approach the art from a variety of styles -- from the veteran Antonio Canales to the younger generation represented by Belen Lopez, Carlos Rodriguez, Jesus Carmona and Sol Pico, all of whom bring a new flavour with their choreography and performance. Each with highly distinctive styles but all from the Flamenco family, they performed both individually and together in this celebratory event to mark the 10th anniversary of the festival.

As for the musicians, they provided another dimension of expertise with their charisma and skill, a constant, interactive presence on stage. They included the formidable female singers Rocio Bazan and Maite Maya, Juan Nares, and guest singer Maria La Coneja.

Feisty characters, the musicians gather around the dancers like a band of gypsies, mock heckling and egging them on. Maria La Coneja performs a solo on the castanets towards the end. A formidable grande-dame, La Coneja dominates the stage as she plays the castanets with such rhythmic speed and accuracy that you marvel at the suppleness and coordination of her fingers. The audience looks on, bewitched, watching her as if she were a snake charmer.

Jesus Carmona is a slight dancer who seems to glide across the surface of the stage as he spins; light on his feet, he travels at a fierce tempo as his head whips round from side to side with the sharpness of a knife. Carmona pirouettes with supersonic speed, fluid movements emanating from his spine with the grace of a ballet dancer. His precision is faultless. In his piece, 'Hueco,' he is accompanied by two cantaores with furious, raucous voices who bark at him like angry, bossy mothers.

Carlos Rodriguez is the experimentalist, alternating between Indian ragu and tala rhythms for his stamping, then performing to castanets played by four dancers dressed in the white and red 'trajes de flamenca' -- full-length, frilly dresses. Rodriguez is a more effeminate performer than Carmona, with less of a macho swagger about him. He's like a pop star flanked by glamorous women, dashingly striking. Tight and efficient with movement, like Carmona he is master of speed and accuracy, performing fast changes of direction as he flies around the stage. Rodriguez branches out from traditional Flamenco, incorporating complex upper body movements and big leaps. His piece, "Don Juan," features violin music, which adds another atypical flavour to the familiar instruments of flamenco.

When we see the petite but muscular Pico with her modish short blonde hair, black halter-neck waistcoat and trousers in the opening ensemble, she looks like she's just stepped out of a Bob Fosse musical rather than a Flamenco gala. In her piece "Pa Torrat," Pico performs in pointe shoes and wearing a black satin leotard and feathered cape. Gone is the traditional dress. Struggling to stand from a crouching position, she looks like a drunken crow. When she does get up, still on pointe and with bent knees, she leaps into an ungainly, vulgar dance, with showy high leg kicks, stabbing her toes (still on pointe) into the floor in a petulant and aggressive manner. What's clever here is that she uses the ballet shoe like a Flamenco boot, stamping, but with her points. This masochistic foot dance looks excruciating, but Pico's strong, angular body seems to be able to cope. Her innovative choreography is informed by Flamenco technique, but ultimately "Pa Torrat" is incoherent and falls short of being a good contemporary piece; showy tricks dominate at the expense of anything more subtle or explorative. Absent too is the mesmerising connection with music and musicians that the others demonstrate, Lopez in particular.

Antonio Canales has an authoritative presence and even though he looks heavy, he dances with incredible lightness. Sticking mainly with foot work, stamping on the spot, Canales moves very little in his upper body, exhibiting an overall style that is restrained and dignified. He demonstrates subtle movement -- the poetry in an arm lift, a lyrical tilt of the head. He has a story to tell, about pain and struggle, in "Tangos de la Chumbera," and his understated but heartfelt interpretation is moving.

Belen Lopez. Bernardo Doral photo courtesy Sadler's Wells.

Capping the evening with a flourish, Belen Lopez, with her long black hair and fierce gaze of concentration, commands an intensity that is unrivalled. She too tells stories in her every move. With her gypsy looks, of all the performers on this evening Lopez embodies the most passionately the 'duende' or Flamenco spirit essential to the creation of a thrilling Flamenco experience. Her fast, percussive duet with Carmona is a sophisticated display of partnering, in which the pirouettes are so rapid that all you see is a black curtain of her hair. But it is her final piece "Senora" which is sensational in her impassioned stamping and devotional relationship with the musicians. At one point, the male singer Juan Nares seems to be screeching at Lopez as she dances right beside him, stamping on the spot. Her face is scrunched up with pain, but really she is totally lost in concentration and connected viscerally to the music. Through technical ability, stamina and determination, she pours forth raw emotion that has the impact of a primal scream. It's exhausting but sensational.

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