On Tuesday night, Carlota Santana's Spanish dance company, Flamenco Vivo, opened at the Joyce Theater, where it will be performing until the end of this week. The company consists of seven dancers-four women and three men-in addition to Santana herself, who appears as a sort of celebrity in two of the eight works presented.
First on the program was "Palillos y Pies"-which literally translates as "sticks and feet"-a work for the entire company, choreographed by one of its members, Pilar Andujar. The playbill relates that the piece is "based on the old, almost forgotten tradition, the use of the castañuela-castanet," which is rarely, if ever, used in modern flamenco dancing. "This tiny instrument once said 'Spanish Dance' to the world," the footnote continues. "Here it is revived in a new setting."
This new setting is one of dramatic lighting, designed by Brenda Gray, sleek costuming, and thoroughly greased hair, with a significant contribution from the fog machine. Andujar, who also performs in her own work, does a tidy job of manipulating formations of dancers on the stage, smoothly guiding the focus of the viewer on a duet here, a solo there, and a few group sections thrown in for good measure. But the piece lacked depth. Andujar, it seems, was more concerned with appealing to a modern aesthetic than maintaining the character of the traditional dance form.
Luckily, that character surfaced later in the program and even emanated strongly from certain solo dancers, though, at least in part, the musicians must be credited for their presence. Although the first work on the program was danced to taped music, every other piece was performed with an ensemble of live musicians. Two vocalists, two guitarists, a flautist, and a percussionist all accompanied and collaborated with the dancers in the structured improvisation that exhibited a sort of call-and-response relationship between the performers that is seldom seen on stage today.
Rarely is choreography danced to live music, rarely are the musicians actually seated on the stage, and even less frequently do the musicians have the opportunity to take such an active role in the performance. Watching the dancers and musicians interacting, motioning to and playing off of one another, was thrilling. The group displayed a remarkable ability to draw the audience into the intimate and imaginative community established and explored before their very eyes. For this reason, the performance became more and more exciting as it moved along.
The evening peaked with two solo dances. Andujar danced the first. She wore a stunning white dress with fringe that shook and swirled around her torso, accentuating the spirals of her body while she displayed an exciting contrast between the fierce and flirtatious qualities of her movement. The second solo dance was created and performed by Rafael Peral. More so than any other dancer on stage that evening, Peral truly developed a character on the stage that moved beyond the more conventional, competitive aspect of flamenco dancing into a genuine joy of performance that the audience perceived and responded to immediately.
Although the program had its ups and downs, the overall impression was one of a passion for and a commitment to a dance form that is rarely given adequate attention in this city. If you wish to explore flamenco dancing, this is an excellent opportunity.