Flamenco transcends a set of dance steps or a series of music notes. It is a passionate celebration – of movement and sound, of the human body, and of a culture steeped in tradition. It is an innate form of expression, a language all in itself. For the audience of the Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company, regardless of their background or native tongue, the essence of flamenco is certainly felt and for many, just one night spent with Paco and his dancers may be the beginning of a long-term love affair with all things Españoles.
Paco Peña is a name not unfamiliar to Australian audiences. For the last forty or so years the man who was born in the very home of flamenco, the southern Spanish region of Andalucía, has been sharing his art with Australia. In the seventies he toured his solo guitar shows, then those in collaboration with Australian classical guitarist John Williams, and more recently those featuring a combination of flamenco musicians, singers, and dancers.
Flamenco sin Fronteras, a show with four dancers, eight musicians and two singers, is the latest show by Paco, and the show’s director Jude Kelly, to tour the country. Its title translates to “Flamenco without borders,” and it demonstrates the depth and potential of this art form by combining it in its classical form with the songs and dance of various Latin American countries, particularly those of South America, to where many Spanish artists travelled in the 20th Century.
In Melbourne the show is performed in the State Theatre – a big space to fill indeed, especially without a set. But the artists, through clever staging, and simple but effective illumination by Aideen Malone, are a constant presence, and forming a close-knit semi-circle, they create their own intimate performance space for the dancers to traverse. It would be magic to experience this show in the informal and cosy environment of a bar or family home, but given that the show manages to create this sense of intimacy in such a large venue, it is a shame for the performers and those who were wanting to experience the show, that the seating allocation was apparently restricted to just the stalls.
To highlight and demonstrate the differences between the dance and musical flavours of Spain and those of South America, the artists have been separated into two groups. On the left side of the semi-circle, dressed in black, are the singers, musicians and dancers representing Spain. On the right of the circle, dressed in white, are those who represent Venezuela. Before long however, the artists in black are mixing with the artists in white and they are no longer playing off against those on the opposite side, but are dancing, playing and singing amongst each other. By the end of the show the music and dance of the Spaniards and the Venezuelans, rather like the evolution of flamenco, becomes a natural blend and collaboration of movement, sounds, and an overall style.
At least in Australia, the depiction or demonstration of flamenco and indeed the similar styles of Latin dance that have flooded mainstream arts and media in recent years, tend to focus on the role of the female dancer. However in this show, the artistry and masculinity of the male dancers is unmistakeable.
The show, choreographed by the dancers and Fran Espinosa, is transfixing from the onset thanks to Spanish male dancer Ramón Martínez. In his tailored pants and waistcoat (costume designers Linda Rowell and Elvira Peña make sure all their artists are simply but suitably attired) he struts onto the stage, and with great composure, control and self-assuredness, proceeds to take command of the theatre. His body movements ooze confidence and each flick of his head lets off a spray of what could be water, or hair product – the possibility that this spray, were it not the first dance of the evening, could actually be sweat, was quite a potent thought. His tapping footwork, or “zapateado”, is something else and as in each dance piece of the more traditional flamenco style, this is combined with the hand clapping, foot stomping, and shouts of encouragement from the musicians and singers that surround him, as well as the calls from a few of the audience members. Later on his fellow Spanish male dancer Angel Muñoz, though a more cheeky character, performs in a way that is just as breathtaking.
Following the entrance of Martínez and the demonstration of the traditional flamenco style of dance and music, Daniela Tugues, the dancer from the Venezuelan side, introduces a far less familiar style of dance, one that blends elements of flamenco with movements that have hints of an African style and that are noticeably free and joyous. Unlike the control exhibited in more traditional forms of flamenco, these movements seem not so much brought about by an internal energy within the dancer, but in response to the music surrounding her. This piece, and indeed all those that are a melding of various dance and music styles, is a welcome inclusion, but Tugues’s dance is no match for the incredible passion and tension that comes in the form of the traditional female Spanish flamenco dancer, Charo Espino.
Espino is, in appearance, movement and aura, the epitome of flamenco. Like her male counterparts, she has an acute awareness of the power of her body to physically move, and to attract and move others. The structured and curved lines made by her body and arms, and her taut physique, are accentuated by her figure hugging dresses, and though she is accompanied by the sounds of the musicians around her, it is with her body and tap work that she creates the most tension. Perhaps most intriguing is her air of unattainability. This is not a woman to be messed with, and so it is even more rewarding when she offers a rare glimpse of her cheekier side. Espino, like all the artists in this work, is a master of her craft.
Of the musicians, each is as brilliant as the other and in many respects it is the incredibly complex beats and rhythms created by the hand claps, foot taps and human voice that are the stars. That said, percussionist Diego Alvarez shows his versatility and stamina as he plays all manner of percussion instruments – including beating the hell out of a cajón – and the delightful Carlos Tález offers a great gentleness through his vocals and Afro-Venezuelan percussion. Paco Peña himself gives an understated, but memorable, performance playing Serenata Venezolana. Immaculada Rivero looks like someone who could sing the roof off the theatre and she very nearly does. Fellow singer El Chaparro accompanies her and the two of them work well along side Spanish guitarists Paco Arriaga and Rafael Montilla. On the Venezuelan side, bandola and mandolin player Ricardo Sandoval, to the great delight of the audience, does a brilliant version of Isaac Albéniz’s Asturias (made famous in Australia by John Williams), whilst Aquiles Báez on the cuatro, and José Vincente Muñoz on the bass, take up a quieter but just as integral role.
One of the most joyous elements in this show is the way it captures the interaction amongst and between the artists; the dancers and musicians, but also the men and women. In the second act the musicians, singers and dancers engage in a light-hearted play off. Although it seems to go on just a bit too long (perhaps because the artists speak to each other entirely in Spanish), it is an amusing display. Most fun of all however is the way in which the artists, and not just the dancers, further explore the passion and flirtatiousness that exists within, and is created by, the music and dance. Talez, the percussionist, is often trying to woo Tugues. When that doesn’t work, he tries the feisty Rivero, who, with the strength and confidence that seems to be not just a common trait amongst these performers, but a necessity, gives back as good as she gets.
Sadly, the show does come to an end and unfortunately Paco Peña’s tour of Australia with Flamenco sin Fronteras is all too brief. So, for those who missed out this time round, or for those for whom one night just wasn’t enough, there is only one thing to do – buy a pair of flamenco dance shoes. And maybe a plane ticket to Spain.
Andrew Kay & David Vigo presents
Flamenco sin Fronteras
Paco Pena Flamenco Dance Company
Venue: State Theatre | the Arts Centre, Melbourne
Dates: 26 - 27 Jul 2011
Tickets: $47.00 - $109.90