Gala Flamenca 2017 at Sadler’s Wells

Sadler’s Wells bill their Gala Flamenca as “one of the highlights of each year’s Flamenco Festival” and they are right.  It is a show built around people who have won prizes at the previous year’s competitions and festivals in Spain.  This means that you get a bit of everything and you get to see people who are the rising stars, in the view of the aficionados in Spain.  That’s why we love it and this year’s was no exception.

In 2017, there were four dancers, the Gypsy dancer Juana Amaya, Olga Pericet, Jesús Carmona and Patricia Guerrero.  Then there was a guest appearance from singer, Rocío Márquez who had a bit of the Ellie Gouldings about her.  (Or, was it Joss Stone – young, female, long hair and accessible music.)  She did her own concert during the Festival as well as appearing with the company.  She has an amazing voice and sings very traditionally but also a lot of powerful songs which seem much more accessible.  I did feel that I would be able to follow the story she told if only I could understand the Spanish, whereas normally you can’t understand singers of cante.

In addition, there were two excellent guitarists, Daniel Jurado and Victor “El Tomato”, Paco Vega on percussion and Herminia Borja, Miguel Lavi and Jonathan Reyes adding to the singing. Unusually, Paco Vega was presented like a rock drummer, sitting at the back on a raised platform, albeit with a more clearly Flamenco drums and beat boxes.  Herminia Borja seemed quite old in this young company but, boy, could she pack a punch, including when she was duetting with Rocío.

The dancers danced together at the start and at the finish, perfectly in synch with the one another and thrilling to watch.  They then took turns to do some of the classic Flamenco dances and they were all very good.

Patricia Guerrero is tall and elegant and danced in a white dress with a relatively long tail as well as with a large red shawl so she manipulated both shawl and tail at the same time.  This was very impressive, particularly as she made it look so easy.  I was intrigued to see that she then bent down and hooked the tail of the dress up, converting it into a dress with a full skirt so she could do another dance in it.  Ingenious.

Olga Pericet was very small.  She danced in a man’s costume as well as in a red dress with a red and white shawl.  She was strong but I think Mercedes Ruíz, earlier in the week, was stronger when dancing the man’s dance.

Juana Amaya had a very different style from the others, seeming less polished and precise, perhaps.  I guess that is what they mean by “gypsy”.  However, for all that she was strong and exciting and passionate.

Jesus Carmona came on in one of those black hats with a brim but a fairly flat crown (like a squashed top hat).  He danced with it for a while and then gave the hat to Rocio Marquez took it off stage in one of her wanderings off and on.  He was strong and an exciting dancer but there wasn’t enough of him and of male dancing, given the number of women.

In fact, that would be my only quibble this year.   There seemed to be a dearth of traditional male dancers and companies of dancers where their formation dancing is so powerful.  I miss that.  The women are getting stronger and stronger and I like that too but there is a difference when you have a really strong male dancer.  When they dance together, playing off one another, that is great.  I wouldn’t like that on its own either – I’d just like some of it.

All being well, the Flamenco Festival will be back in 2018 and with it a Gala Flamenca.

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Let Mercedes Ruiz dance for you if you get the chance

Cia. Mercedes Ruiz presented “Déjame que te baile” (“Let me dance for you”) as part of the 2017 Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells.  Mercedes Ruiz is one of the most renowned Flamenco dancers of Jerez and she claims her new piece is a declaration of love to the audience.

The performance started at least 10 minutes late.  However, the show went on until 9.10, giving us the promised 90 minutes without an interval.  If you go to the festival, you will find that this is very common – at least 90 minutes without a break and starting late, so plan your loo visits accordingly!

This production featured Mercedes Ruiz and her company.  She had one guitarist, one percussionist, two singers (both called David!) and two men for clapping!  I kid you not.  The ninety minutes seemed to fly by and that is not always the case.  I recommend her unreservedly if you get a chance to see her.

After the Israel Galván in the first week, it was for us like moving from the ridiculous to the sublime.  Classical Flamenco at its very best.  She was very good, even when she did what was traditionally a man’s dance where she demonstrated strong stamping.  The guitarist was good too and the two singers.  I preferred David Lagos to David Carpio because the latter’s voice seemed a bit whinier to me.

Mercedes had a new outfit for every dance.  She started in pale blue with white lace sleeves and bodice, quite a full skirt with self-coloured ruffles, for the Milonga-Garrotín.  Then a matador suit in a red material, complete with little jacket, for the male dance, Martinete.  Then a white dress with a pink lace overtop, like a shawl but permanently in place, and a train of at least 3 feet for the kicking around for the Alegrías.  Then a black crushed velvet dress that seemed quite straight but which had a deceptively full skirt as Flamenco dresses often do, with long sleeves and a high neck at the front but a plunging back, fringed with a deep surround of golden lace, again like a shawl, for the Soleá.  Finally, for the fiesta a dress with red flowers and layers of frills around the skirt – and a proper shawl for dancing with.

Suffice it to say, she can dance for me anytime!

Israel Galván, FLA.CO.MEN, at Sadler’s Wells

On Thursday 16 February 2017, we went to see the opening offering of Sadler’s Wells 2017 Flamenco Festival.  Called FLA.CO.MEN and staged by Israel Galván, it was not your standard flamenco; rather it was flamenco as conceptual art, avant-garde flamenco and the theatre aficionados were on the edge of their seats.  Literally.  On my left, next to me after the couple between us had taken advantage of a blackout to scarper, a grey-haired stout man sat forward eager to catch every nuance and the woman behind had to ask him to sit back so she could see even a little.

I think the point was that the show subverted or played with the forms of Flamenco.  It certainly emphasised the link between the music and the body movement, the body itself being used as a percussion instrument at times and at others the stamping of the feet used directly to beat a drum.  It was supposed to be all about freeing the music from the constraints of a narrative but it seemed like there was a narrative to me – learning flamenco steps and movements.  It broke the fourth wall, bringing performers to the front of the stage at a particular section to sing, dance or play the stage as a drum and plunging us all into darkness for a considerable time just hearing the percussion from Galván’s feet – or from bits of the stalls auditorium he found to play.  If that was a section where we could see nothing; there was also a section where we could hear nothing.  “Silencio!” called one of the singers; and it fell on the theatre – silence.  It was towards the end. People started to get nervous.  Should we be applauding?  One person made a feeble attempt to start us clapping.  We stayed silent. And, then, they carried on with the final scenes.

Even so, the music was often very good: a section that was very Indian, another that sounded Polynesian, both working really well with the tones of the cante.  The xylophone was amazing and sang under its player.  The two singers were incredible, complimenting each other with their different tones and providing evocative, emotional moments.  However, often the music was just an atonal cacophony or loud, loud drums.

There were some other flashes of brilliance.  Israel Galván has strength in the stamping and tremendous form and line even when executing moves that were more martial arts or yoga than flamenco.  At the same time, there were some just weird bits: the section in total darkness, silence, throwing paper around, smashing a plaster foot.  There is a thin line between genius and self-indulgence and for me it walked too often on the self-indulgent side.  It probably didn’t help that I didn’t get the jokes – and people did laugh – which were rather slapstick.  I was very glad when it was over.

If you have a chance to see the show or Israel Galván, should you go?  If you love traditional Flamenco cante, guitar, percussion and dance, maybe not – save your pennies and pounds for another day.  However, if you like more experimental theatre experiences, you will probably love this and wonder what my problem was.  Enjoy!