and Awe on St. Marks Place
Somewhere between ballet and bullfighting lies the mysterious art of flamenco, presented in pure and earthy form by Noche Flamenca, a troupe of half-a-dozen Spaniards clustered around one intense Senora, Soledad Barrio. Their two-hour tour de force in the East Village feels like a trip to a café in southern Spain a hundred years ago, where in dim light, dancers take the floor and goad themselves and each other to heights of exhibitionism, seduction, self-flagellation, dreaminess, defiance and various other states of mind, all off the charts in terms of intensity.
Flamenco is not just dance but an integration of dance, music, and song, and that fusion is the source of this small company’s power. Soledad Barrio’s climactic solo is not a solo at all, surrounded as she is by two guitar players, two singers who take turns keening and wailing and imploring her on, and one other long-haired guy, who joins them all in beating time with their hands and feet. Everyone’s eyes are fixed on Barrio as she twists and turns, taps and whirls. As the dance builds to one climax after another, it is punctuated by thunderous stomps—six heels coming down with one impact and one sound, six souls with a single impulse, a single beat. That clap of thunder is something that takes hundreds of years to come together, and it’s something missing in “higher” realms of art—for instance, a ballet company where the dancers wouldn’t know the musicians if they passed them on the street, connected as they are only by an intermediary conductor. Here, the circle is unbroken—and crackling with life.
The long-haired guy who beats his hands and feet is the company’s artistic director, Martin Santangelo, who also happens to be Barrio’s husband and father of their two children. They started the company in Madrid in 1993, and have assembled a nicely balanced cast for this year’s run. The two leading male dancers are like night and day: Bruno Argenta is a veteran of Ballet de Madrid, slim and proud and capable of whipping off multiple pirouettes with a high passé. His solo turn looks a bit narcissistic—almost like a skateboarder topping himself again and again, with soaring arms and stretched-out rhythms in between the hammering heel-beats.
Antonio Rodriguez, a.k.a. “El Chupete,” is a tough guy with a slight paunch, in need of a shave. He learned his stuff at the flamenco festivals and fairs of Andalusia, and he dances like a matador trying to evade a crazed bull on an icy sidewalk. Again and again, he comes up panting, his mouth working, staring as if shell-shocked out into the audience. In the end, still in one piece, he gives a slight grin, takes off the suit-jacket that has been binding and twisting around him, flips it over his shoulder and goes off, to fight another day.
As for Soledad Barrio, she is scary, in the best sense. Often your eyes are fixed on her firm and shapely arms, rippling and writhing in the air like serpents. Then she will sweep them down to lift her long black skirt, to reveal delicate, driven feet, rapping out their intricate syncopations on heel and toe. But most of all she dances with her eyes. They are black and steady as she flashes her head back and forth, fixing the audience with an astonished, open-mouthed stare. Her look is reminiscent of “shock and awe,” those Pentagon buzzwords meant to describe the enemy’s hoped-for response to a U-S military onslaught. Where does this come from? In his program notes, director Santangelo makes much of flamenco’s origins in the brutal Spanish repressions and “ethnic cleansings” of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. He quotes historian Felix Grande: “The Jews were massacred, the Gypsies humiliated and persecuted, the Arabs exterminated, the Moriscos (converted Arabs) expelled, and the Andalusians generally exploited. If we do not relate the music...to brutality, repression, hunger, fear, menace, inferiority, resistance, and secrecy, then we shall not find the reality of flamenco.” It is all this that finds its way into Barrio’s black eyes—the expression of one who has seen awful things, and has lived to dance the tale.
Barrio’s tango duet with Rodriguez takes the form of a seductive pas de deux, but the sexuality is not the most riveting aspect. It is rather the trepidation with which these two enter each other’s auras—as if stepping into a minefield. When they finally link arms and walk off at the end, it is only after exploring the danger zone, pitting their animal attraction against the mortal fear of another human.
It was scary, but I want to go back, and drag all my dancer friends to see dance in an elemental form—not an imitation of life, but life itself. The program runs through July 31.
Lead dancers Soledad Barrio and Bruno Argenta. Photo by Herve Leblay.