And the heat goes on

Joachin Cortes's flamenco gets people hot under the collar. Even Giorgio Armani. By Philip Sweeney
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The Independent Culture
As he blazes a scorchingly fiery path of uninhibited sensuality straight through Europe, to quote his London PR company - in other words, goes on tour - Joaquin Cortes, Spain's new flamenco dance star, has generated an impressive media brouhaha.Italy's L'Espresso gets to the heart of the matter with its headline "E Cosi Sexy Che Sembra Una Rockstar". Sex, rock stardom and fashion are the key motifs. Cortes appears, draped in Louis Feraud or Paul Smith, in as many fashion spreads as art columns, and his most recent coup was to enlist Giorgio Armani as designer of the company's costumes, because, according to Cortes's manager, Armani wants to inject some of that fiery gypsy passion stuff into his cool, clinical Milanese image. Is this man just an Armani gitano, one wonders, standing in the same relation to the deep and wayward roots culture of Spanish gypsydom as a champagne socialist does to real working-class politics?

In fact, Cortes appears pretty kosher. His 27 years include childhood initiation into flamenco lore from his uncle, the noted traditional dancer Cristobal Reyes, and six years with the Spanish National Ballet before embarking on a solo career in 1990 distinguished so far by two smash hit shows - Cibay in 1992 was the first - and recognition at such prestigious international dance forums as the Spoleto Festival in Italy. "His fame is not hype," says Roger Salas, dance critic of El Pais newspaper. "He's a brilliant dancer and a true renovator, though he has had extraordinary mediatisation."

Whatever else Cortes is, he is a remarkable dancer. This much is plain within the first 10 seconds of the filmed farruca he performed in last year's Carlos Saura show Flamenco. In Saura's austere setting, the speed, elegance and utter precision of Cortes's movements mark him unmistakably as a Ferrari among hoofers, and the much talked-about bare torso and tight jeans don't look gimmicky, but simple and modern.

Barcelona earlier this year: the Joaquin Cortes Company's latest version of Pasion Gitana, the show currently scorching its sensual way hither and thither on an intermittent two-year world tour, is coming to the end of a sold-out run at the Tivoli Theatre. Before the performance, young girls beg to have photos sent back for autographing, and a stream of smart middle-class couples arrives. Not a sign of the flash, rowdy gypsy families you get at some flamenco concerts. In the foyer, a stand sells Cortes T-shirts, posters, videos, little dagger necklaces - a reference to the show's celebrated knife-wielding, faintly homo-erotic Romance Armargo duet - and Pasion Gitana CDs which, oddly, since his only contribution to the audio experience of the show is a lot of heel-banging, bear Cortes's face and name on the cover, not the musicians'.

Pasion Gitana opens with a reference not to sexual passion, but its more typically Hispanic religious variant. Dozens of candles cover a bare stage, prominent among them a seven-branched menorah recalling not only the Sephardic ingredient deep within the primal matter of flamenco, but also the strong Jewish past of Cordoba, Cortes's native city. Cortes makes his entry at a run from the back of the auditorium, in a sort of Gaultier-like punk skirt, but as the show unfolds it is not a rock extravaganza at all, more a logical piece of updating and hybridisation bringing flamenco dance presentation into line with current musical trends. Thirteen musicians, an unusually large group, take the stage, and their instrumentation and pedigree are straight from the world of "New Flamenco", the not-so-new fusion form now at the peak of a long, slow climb to mainstream Spanish popularity.

Born 25 years ago of the injection into traditional flamenco of jazz, blues and Latin American elements by the guitarist Paco de Lucia, New Flamenco finally reached the Spanish hit parade last year with the newest album by Ketama, a group of young members of an old gypsy flamenco family. The Carmona brothers of Ketama are the tip of an iceberg of similar young musicians, many of them based around the old working-class district of Lavapies, a Madrid equivalent of Brixton, and many of them from a series of great interrelated gypsy families. This is Cortes's milieu - his mother still lives in Lavapies, though he himself moved to the smart Cibeles area two years ago - and that of his musicians. Pepe "Montoyata", guitarist and musical director, is the brother-in-law of Enrique Morente, probably the greatest flamenco singer now living. Ramon Porrina, the son of another singer, Ramon "El Portugues", plays the cajon box drum, discovered at a party in the Spanish Embassy in Peru by De Lucia's drummer and now a trademark of New Flamenco.

In addition to the "New Flamenco" score, what are the other novel elements of a Cortes production? There is dramatic lighting, and a range of striking modern costumes of which the only Armani frocks to have shown up - svelte black velvet numbers with gleaming white linings - are much the most beautiful. There is a touch of playful cross-dressing, with the girl dancers at one point in trousers and waistcoats, and co-star Marco Berriel performing one number with a sort of flamenco-skirt flounce attached to his black trousers. There is the carefully integrated blend of traditional flamenco dance, in the shape of Cortes's uncle Cristobal Reyes as second co-star, and modern ballet, as personified by Berriel, choreographer and dancer with the companies of Maurice Bejart, and that figure of such influence in post-movida Spain, Lindsay Kemp. Above all, pulling the whole thing together with his charisma and his virtuoso blend of flamenco with the classical pirouettes and porte de bras he acquired with the National Ballet, there's Cortes himself. Not to mention his much-photographed bare chest, which is not actually his innovation (the great Antonio was photographed shirtless in the 1940s).

Having milked the Barcelona audience for every last bravo with a series of strutting, bottom-wiggling disco-flamenco encores, Cortes exits at a gallop up the aisle and I repair to a restaurant in the company of an Italian TV crew and Cortes's manager, also Italian, one Pino Sagliocco. Sagliocco is an energetic and loquacious fixer whose Spanish production career has included shows by Prince, Madonna, the Rolling Stones and the pairing of Freddie Mercury with Montserrat Caballe. Cortes is his current destiny - "He's gonna be huge across the world" - and spearhead of a one- man export drive for Spanish music. "I wanna be the Chris Blackwell of Spanish music," he remarks, pouring wine.

Cortes arrives, signing programmes for four female fans, sits down and orders water. Surprisingly, his imposing stage stature turns out to be an illusion; off stage he's tiny. On the subject of his work, he re-states the obvious patiently. "Pasion Gitana is an homage to gypsy life and culture. Its style is mestizaje (hybridisation). I'm very proud of my generation of New Flamenco and I want to translate it into dance." We then embark on a Sagliocco-orchestrated taxi caravan around Barcelona nightlife during the course of which Cortes shows himself to be a good pool player and not a show-off on the disco floor. Perfectly fairly, he chats up the prettiest of the Italians. Tomorrow's a rest day, then it's back on the uninhibited trail of scorching passion - Rome, Milan, Tokyo, London - Sagliocco navigating, with a hundred fashion editors readying their headlines.

n At Sadler's Wells, London EC1 this Sunday. Booking: 0171-713 6000