Flamenco in Nueva York

Rafael Amargo
“Poet in New York”
City Center, New York
June 23, 2006

Noche Flamenca
“Esta noche no es mi dia” 
Theater 80 St. Marks, New York
June 24, 2006

by Tom Phillips
copyright ©2006, Tom Phillips

The great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca spent a year in New York, studying at Columbia in 1929-30, and he didn’t like it very much.  He produced a cycle of poems entitled “Poeta en Nueva York,” in which he portrays the city as an inhospitable, even inhuman place. Here, in translation, is his take on sunrise in Gotham:

Dawn in New York has
four columns of mire
and a hurricane of black pigeons
splashing in the putrid waters.

Dawn in New York groans
in enormous fire escapes
searching between the angles
for spikenards of drafted anguish.

Dawn arrives and no one receives it in his mouth
because morning and hope are impossible here …

Spanish flamenco dancer Rafael Amargo also spent a similarly stressful year in New York when he was 20, studying at the Martha Graham school. Ten years later, he’s back with a multimedia theatrical extravaganza of flamenco, ballet, modern and show-dance, based on Lorca’s book and starring Amargo himself as a kind of Hispanic Lord of the Dance.  The show has won awards in Madrid and toured widely in Europe, but it’s an odd production to bring to New York, based as it is on such a glum and narrow view of the city. 

Stark images in black-and-white film are the backdrop for a series of solos by Amargo, first in red, then white, then black. On film, the city looks monumentally oppressive, and Amargo plays off that image with dances of passionate resistance. He’s an exciting performer, seemingly able to float above the floor on the strength of his jackhammer heels and toes, while ripping away at his clothes as he turns and gyrates above. But the show seemed like the naïve vision of a young man who hasn’t seen much beyond himself. It was way too long — over two hours, without an intermission — and the non-flamenco elements were mediocre. 

Amargo had lined up and advertised American Ballet Theater’s Spanish superstar, Angel Corella, to help him conquer Manhattan, but it turned out that ABT wouldn’t allow Corella to moonlight from his duties at the Met.  The show did include a solo from ballet and Broadway star Rasta Thomas, who gave his collection of bravura turning leaps a flamenco-like flair. But the highlights were solos by a couple of supporting women, whose turns were more contained but just as passionate as their boss’s. That was also true of the two female vocalists, who wailed and implored the dancers on, and even took their turns on the dance floor. They didn’t look like “dancers,” but they danced like dancers.  Flamenco is not about body types, age or gender, or technique or costume.  It’s about putting your whole self out there, and challenging everyone around to do the same.  

If you want to see it in pure form, just head downtown for the latest edition of Noche Flamenca, playing again this summer at a funky little theater in the East Village.  Here there are no multi-media effects, no amplification, no plot or literary theme.  It’s just three dancers, two guitarists, and three singers, gathered on a bare stage that could be a café in Andalusia a hundred years ago.  The atmosphere comes from the murky, dramatic lighting by Mark London, and the faces of the performers. All of them convey not just a desire to communicate, but a need to express. There’s an urgency in the wild, deceptively awkward cross-steps of Alejandro Granados. And there’s some kind of controlled desperation in the black eyes of Soledad Barrio, a small woman with enormous wings that take shape in the imagination as she raises her arms in a diamond above and behind her head.  Barrio convinces us she is dancing not because people pay to see her, but because she has to — that in whirling and stomping, and tattooing the floor with ten thousand tiny precision beats, she is performing a ritual that’s fundamental to her life. By the second half of the show, the audience is part of it — even those who can barely speak a word of Spanish finding a way to shout Ole!

This year the company has one new dancer, one new guitarist and a new female singer. The choreography and the music are new, but the elements are all familiar — solos for the singers and guitarists, a dark and subtle tango for Barrio and Granados, a manly Alegria by the new dancer, Juan Ogalla, an introspective Solea by Granados, all leading up to Barrio’s smoldering Siguiriya. They end the show with a modest but moving rite, gathering to lay flowers for a late comrade, singer Antonio Vizirraga, who died this year. 

Noche Flamenca continues through July on St. Marks Place.          

Volume 4, No. 25
June 26, 2006

copyright ©2006 Tom Phillips



©2006 DanceView