Flamenco often gets talked about as some sort of generalized but codified Spanish Gypsy tradition whose performers are always passionate, mysterious, and endowed with near-occult powers. Actually, far from being monolithic or fixed in the historical past, flamenco comes in many forms and styles. It’s probably the most individual and contemporary of performance traditions. I got to see two of the three programs World Music presented at the Emerson last week for its third annual Flamenco Festival, and the differences between them were fascinating.
The show on Thursday and Friday nights by Ballet Flamenco Eva Yerbabuena had the feeling of a continuous modern-dance concert. Six numbers were threaded together by danced and musical interludes, and they were bracketed by a dramatic device that established a mood of nostalgia. In a dusky light, Yerbabuena listens to what starts as a scratchy record of guitar music on an old-fashioned phonograph. Drawn into the mood of the music, which mutates into a lush orchestral arrangement, she stretches and yearns, rising to dance some half-remembered steps. Both the music and the dance are mapped out on traditional flamenco baselines, but both are modern, too, in the harmonies and shapes of the music and in the dancer’s rambling, almost expressionistic reactions to it.
After this opening scene, which returned at the close of the program, the performance followed a more predictable flamenco mode, as a series of showpieces for each member of the company. One at a time, three singers emerged out of the dark. Not knowing Spanish is always a disadvantage at a flamenco performance because so much of the emotion is conveyed by the singers; I had to read it from their body language, their vocal temperament. In a harsh spotlight, the first man seemed to be running on intensity alone, his voice pushing at his whole body while he pumped his arms in and out almost involuntarily. The second man seemed more relaxed, underlining his song by clamping and unclamping his fingers. And the third gestured almost descriptively, his hands curving along the edges of the melody.
As soon as the solos were over, the singers joined the four musicians — a drummer, a flutist and two guitarists — seated upstage in a light too dim for me to make them out clearly. The lighting, while never exactly bright, was designed to keep the dancers in the foreground for the rest of the concert, even though they worked totally in synch with the musicians.
Contemporary ideas traded back and forth with traditional ones, and the mix worked really well. Composer and guitarist Paco Jarana incorporated effects from jazz and Middle Eastern modalities as well as the pop sound that’s boosted world folk music ever since Riverdance. Yerbabuena carried most of the solo dancing, but the ensemble of two women and three men dancers moved in unison sequences based on solo patterns — powerful mass footwork and swooping arms. Yerbabuena’s choreography also paid attention to design in space, so the men’s and women’s groups often occupied separate areas of the stage, forming line-ups or creating layers of visual counterpoint.
Yerbabuena’s solos gave us the personal focus of traditional flamenco, her large and flexible arm gestures carrying the torso in arcs and extravagant backbends. Although there were exciting rhythms and beautiful designs, I came away from this program with a sense of disciplined dancers working for a clean, ensemble effect rather than splashy melodramatics.
SUNDAY AFTERNOON’S CONCERT by Antonio Canales and his company was, I thought, more traditional, but very spontaneous and outgoing. Here, solo dancing was the main attraction, with Canales the master and model for the four other men and three women. The three singers and three guitarists assembled casually in the back of the stage, joined by spare dancers who provided antiphonal clapping and shouts of encouragement to whoever was soloing. During the most intricate dancing, the guitarists abandoned melody for a tuneless rhythmic strumming, as if to let us hear the steps better.
Canales, who’s around 40 but could be older, and who looks big compared to his slender younger dancers, began his Seguiriya with small tight steps that stuttered up through his body and bubbled out his lips. Having established the clarity and complexity of his footwork, he punctuated it with spurts of loud stamping, intricate syncopations, eccentric leg gestures, all without letting go of the ongoing trill, then flung out some petulant pirouettes at the end.
Canales’s apparent star protégé, Juan de Juan, used a similar vocabulary but was wild and loud from the start, his arms yanking his body into sudden stops and renewals. His solo went on for maybe 15 minutes. As he worked himself up, he produced multiple pirouettes and a series of five whipping turns with stamps in between. He shook one leg in front of him while the other kept up the rhythm. He dropped into a sudden squat and sprang back up, and to finish off, he accompanied himself with body slapping in a sequence of fast rhythms.
The program included musical interludes and a duet between two younger men: Ignacio Sánchez Blanco gazed out at the audience with smoky concentration while David Paniagua clutched at his jacket and hugged it around himself as he switched directions. As the second half of the program progressed, the performers got more daring and playful, even goofy. In a trio with de Juan and Paul Vaquero, Mónica Fernández tossed her long ruffled train around, then threw it over one arm and showed off her own footwork. Finally, Canales returned for another solo where he seemed at first to levitate, pattering one foot with the other off the ground. After a grueling display of invention that left him more energized than ever, he ripped off his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt — without interrupting the rhythm — and flung off more pirouettes, winding up with a fast riff on his heels.
The whole program built to a tremendous climax on the strength of the dancing alone, not according to any theatrical plan. I’ve seldom felt such a strong connection between the audience and the performers’ response. In fact, there was a moment after Canales’s second long solo when the audience was standing and cheering and he kept bowing and the others on stage seemed unsure what to do next. There was supposed to be one more number. Finally, after regrouping, they did the scheduled " Fin de fiesta " as an encore.
NICOLA HAWKINS’S NEW PIECE, shown with four other dances from her repertory over the weekend in a FleetBoston Celebrity Series Marquee presentation at the Tsai Center, worked almost the opposite way from Yerbabuena’s. Instead of streamlining a tradition to give it a modern look, Hawkins used modern-dance staging to suggest a tradition that hasn’t been invented yet.
Lineal Ascent was set to four clarinet pieces in different Asian-influenced styles that had been composed and were played by Evan Ziporyn. In a bare stage lit to feel like a hot afternoon, six figures in drapy, silky cover-ups and headcloths stood at rest for a long time, grasping long, upright poles. They began slowly pushing the poles along the floor, spreading out pieces of cloth. Each woman seemed intent at her own task. One might have been cultivating a garden; one might have been raking; another could have been poling a boat through reeds. But none of them pantomimed anything, it was just the tilt of their bodies, the curve of their backs, or the way they drove the poles into the ground that brought these images to mind.
In a second tableau, the women faced upstage. One at a time they turned to come forward and face the audience. Under their head coverings they were all masked. As if this simple advance were the limit of confrontation for them, they returned to the group right away.
Then there was a slow procession, with one character — whose mask might have been that of a man — seated on the shoulders of two others. A long silk cloth held by an attendant streamed back from over the monarch’s head to make a carpet behind him. One of his retinue carried a bowl — a hemisphere of brass three feet across. In ceremonial fashion a woman was led to the bowl and helped to stand on its rim. Steadying herself on the shoulders of two other women, she " walked " across the space with global steps. When she had completed her journey, another woman underwent the trial. In the last scene, a figure with wild red hair and a white mask emerged from the group and slowly curled up inside the bowl.
Lineal Ascent reminded me of the 19th-century art that depicted idyllic but imaginary life in the exotic locales that were then being discovered — and conquered — by Europeans. Somehow ritual and work in these paintings were shown as beautiful and basic, an example of how harmonious life could be if only humanity hadn’t gone and industrialized itself.