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Flash Review 2, 6-5: Sophisticated Duende
Soler and Romero up the Ante

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

"Contemporary" Flamenco has always seemed something of a bailiwick to me. It often indicates experiments by a Flamenco artist who has tried to extend beyond his/her natively gifted body and it's realm and canvas to devising a movement pattern for a whole group utilizing the geography of an entire stage, usually with the embarrassing result of seeing a dancer who is the consummate master of the immediate space directly around him being ultimately unable to maneuver groups in an interesting way. Friday at Symphony Space, in a concert by the group of Manuel Soler presented by the World Music Institute and produced by Miguel Marin, I found an exception to this rule.

But first to the mundane norm I was used to: For one, I'm thinking of Maria Benitez, and her resurrection of the 1914 Miguel de Falla ballet "El Amor Brujo," involving (if memory serves!) a gypsy woman, her lover, the new woman he has moved on to, her employment of witchcraft to try to get him back, and the madness which ultimately consumes her. I'm also thinking of the "choreographed" segments of Christina Hoyas's show at City Center a couple of years ago. I'd heard from reliable Flamenco fanatics that Hoyas was the real thing, and so was disappointed by the ultimately mundane choreographies. And I'm thinking of the plethora of ballets commemorating Federico Garcia Lorca which swamped these shores a year or so ago. With all of these artists, I got the sense that they felt they had to give American audiences a story, when we (or at least I) would have been sated with a simple tablao-style concert, recreating what it's like to encounter the Flamenco magic in an Andalusian cafe. (And, indeed, the second half of Benitez's concert was exactly this, and all the more thrilling for it.)

Before Friday's show, the only exception I'd found to the general choreographic mediocrity was Marco Berriel. This mature, suave, handsome, ballet-trained (I think he danced with Bejart) artist created a (Lorca-themed, I think) fiery duet with Joaquin Cortes that gave some much-needed class to the latter's otherwise pretty trashy touring show. Knives were involved, and from the way these were used, the spare choreography, and the restrained intensity of both men, electrifying pins-and-needles tension ensued. Less stormy but equally eloquent was a Berriel character duet with Lola Greco set in the thirties and, if memory serves, involving love songs written by Lorca and initially performed with Argentinita.

On Friday, I caught a performer-choreographer who reminded me of Berriel, in his suavity and economical, fresh additions to the standard Flamenco lexicon. Fernando Romero, who looks like a 20-year-old but dances with the poise of a 40-year-old, showed me something I've only rarely seen before in a Flamenco concert: Adagio! Or should I say, quietly, adagio. In one languorous section, I think he even moved for two or three minutes without slamming a foot to the stage. His arms floated lightly rather than with the serpentine tension usual for flamenco port de bras. And the drama was all in the choreography, not in any over-bearing facial expressions. (Flamenco regulars know what I'm talking about: Where the soloist seems suddenly angry at someone sitting somewhere out in the audience, or overly proud.) And even when his feet did cut loose, his torso remained calm. Romero won the audience not by his bravado, but by his elegance and originality. And his mastery extended beyond his body's realm and across the whole stage which -- again, quietly -- he mastered, somehow using every corner, moving as freely and with the stage-geography-spanning mastery and confidence of a ballet dancer used to commanding this whole terrain. And with great variety. He broke out of the Flamenco box and showed me not just sexy boasting or fleet feet, but genuinely original choreography on the level of an experienced, innovative ballet or modern choreographer.

Speaking of the box, the master of The Box -- I'm speaking of that unassuming low-tech flamenco beat box experts tell me is called the cajon -- the real quiet, unassuming master and master of ceremonies of the evening was Soler himself. We see him first illuminated with three other men on an otherwise dark stage, as they take turns singing, clapping, and stomping, unaccompanied by guitar. (There's probably a nicer, less crass-sounding term for this than stomping -- the fault is in my paucity of flamenco terminology, not the dancing!) These are, if not necessarily old, middle-aged, experienced men, announcing they are about to take us on a journey, to tell us a story. And, again, every trill, every tap, every clap is clear, the whole economically presented. This is the anti-Cortes. No bare chests or struts or jumping up and down are needed by these men; they capture us with the sense that they have seen it all and are going to show us maybe just a little bit of it, but an authentic sample we will treasure forever. If Cortes is the one-night stand, these guys are the dependable, rich, depth-full marriage.

For the rest of the evening, Soler is content to sit upstage on his cajon, not calling attention to himself. Except, of course, through his drumming -- and make no mistake, this is the most virtuosic, obviously experienced in its effortless variety, drumming -- which it takes us only a few minutes of listening/observing to notice is not your usual routine background cajon-beating. Soler hits every corner, at various tempi and volume, and we quickly realize that there's a musical method to this scheme; every corner presents different sounds, from the base of the middle of the box to the tenor of the rim. (A microcosm of the percussive orchestra provided by the whole group, with its hands and feet.) I took in this concert just a day after mourning Tito Puente, and watching Soler I felt like I was in the presence of an equal, not just in virtuosity but in spirit. A quiet (as opposed to boisterous), wry, innocent smile seemed to play on his lips the whole concert. And, at the end of the evening, I felt like for the most part (dancers Juana Amaya and El Mistela were too melodramatic and a bit unconvincing for my tastes) these Flamenco artists had not taken the easy route to thrill me. But, rather, those mentioned as well as vocalists Juan Jose Amador and Enrique el Extremeno, guitarists Miguel Perez (especially in his duet with Romero) and Paco Fernandez, and percussionist Agustin Henke had impressed me with Flamenco music and dance performed by adults, for adults.

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