Dance: Y viva flamenco!

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The Independent Culture
ENTHUSIASTS for flamenco may be forgiven a creeping sense of deja vu at the start of the latest show from impresario Francisco Sanchez. It was he who brought us the fabulous Cumbre Flamenca, the troupe most often credited with having revved up London's appetite for Spanish dance. And almost a decade later, some of us regulars have become quite adept at decoding the bits which aren't actually what we've come to see.

Campanas Flamencas begins on a dark stage lit by a red spot (for which read "death and passion"). Blacksmiths hammer at a forge (to remind us where the cross-rhythms came from). Old men beat a grim tattoo with their sticks and sleek young men skulk under sombreros. There you have racial oppression, frustrated ambitions, the gypsy fate in one neat theatrical snapshot.

It's become almost a routine, this visual preamble. "The trouble with flamenco," complained a fellow critic to me once, "is that it's always the same." I'd say the only trouble with flamenco is the difficulty of making it tell on a large proscenium stage. But once the dancers are left more or less to their own devices - drawing up rhythm from the ground under their heels and skeins of mystery from the air - there's all the dynamic variety an audience can take.

The chief selling point of Sanchez's new line-up is that it spans three generations, all the way from grandmother-on-speed La Tati down to 11- year-old Nino de los Reyes, whose 18-year-old brother Isaac also appears on the billing. No single dancer hogs the stage in this show because, in the director's view, all five are artists worthy of our sole attention. So once we've got over that self-conscious opening business, the evening relaxes into a series of solo turns designed to maximise individual qualities. The campanas of the title are the village bells of southern Spain which ring out good news and bad. Sanchez clearly means us to think of each performer as a bell with its own distinctive resonance.

In a mournful dance called a seguiriya, the lovely face and barely adult body of Isaac de los Reyes combine to give his most macho postures and poutings a rare softness and grace, yet his line is as clean as an arrow.

Little brother Nino (who has just played the infant self of sexy-pants Joaquin Cortes in a Spanish film) poses more of a puzzle. Seeing him strut in his junior-size Cuban heels or jerk his spindly arms into finger- clicking bull's horns, you realise that however prodigious his rhythmic skills (and they are) the performance can only be a kind of mimicry. Fluttering through the steps like a leaf in the wind, this miniature man can't know what there is to be angry about. Yet you have to admire his unspoilt charm and sense of fun.

On comes the pint-sized veteran La Tati, eyes flashing a come-on, hips twitching, dressed in an absurd white ruched dress with a train that looks like a splurge of that whipped cream you spray from a can. Much of her allegrias is spent toying with this cumbersome trail of wired satin - winding it round her like a tourniquet, training it to heel like a puppy, hoisting it provocatively up to her waist as a wagging bustle, or crudely raising its hem with her knee, as if to cool her private parts. It was all too much for me. I preferred the stately-galleon restraint of Milagros Mengibar, whose mellifluous hands are forever recommending the upholstered delights of her own contours, yet whose 19th-century sense of decorum makes her don't-touch-till-you've-paid stance infinitely more alluring.

Two hours into a long evening, the show has clocked up several fine performances, but nothing to raise the roof. Enter Joaquin Grilo, a 28-year-old with the sort of pale, undefinable presence that seems to wax and wane with the fluctuating charge he generates. Here is a dancer willing to efface himself in the service of his art. Suddenly you notice the four musicians ranged on stage behind him. The guitarists' fingers have taken flight and the throaty wail of singer Talegon de Cordoba is finding new paths of melodic daring. Grilo begins by obediently marking out the music's count, but soon he's playing fiendish mathematical games with it - was he dancing six bars of six counts over the music's nine bars of four? I couldn't say. I lost count. I only know it's this creative tussle between strictness and freedom that makes both music and dance take fire. Grilo worked the musicians to a froth. They worked him to a frazzle. The audience went wild. And when the dancer returned on stage to join in the statutory final knees-up, we could see he'd doused his head in a bucket of water. This Joaquin is a Prometheus: his fashionable namesake is just a puppet.

Peacock Theatre, WC2 (0171 314 8800), to 8 Mar.