Getting Joaqun off my chest

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The Independent Culture
A few pages into Joaqun Cortes's press cuttings, and I began to think that I could speak Esperanto: "Torso tuto nudo", "Oscillazione del gusto", "No es simplo un artistico flamenco. Es un forza di natura." Scorchio. This certified phenomenon, complete with fully oscillating gusto, was coming to Islington for One Night Only. The gig was a trailer for this week's four-night stand at the Albert Hall. The old Sadler's Wells Theatre, enjoying a final flourish before bulldozers razed it to the ground, was the place to be that chilly Sunday night in March. The Mercedes were bumper to bumper in Rosebery Avenue and London's Spanish community was out in force. With them were the trendy, hatted types who normally turn out only for Lindsay Kemp or Michael Clark, plus a starry sprinkling of Stephen Berkoff, Lady Olivier and Eric Clapton. The audience gazed on Cortes with a wild surmise and promptly wet itself. Only mass hysteria, Iberian solidarity or a recent brush with psychedelic drugs could account for the schoolgirlish reception. Was he as good as they say?

Cortes's first entrance was made through the audience. Topless, with dark hair flowing free and clad only in a black maxi-skirt and suede ankle boots, the 27-year-old Cordoban cut a strange figure. He did a short, rousing solo, then left us to enjoy a chorus line of flamenco ballerinas. Twelve women doing the same thing at once is not really what flamenco is about - as the veteran dance critic Clement Crisp tartly observed, surely flamenco should consist of one woman doing 12 different things at once. Unison kills flamenco stone dead. The time-honoured illusion that what we are witnessing is really nothing more than an impromptu Andalusian rent-party is destroyed. Cortes's dancers are rehearsed to such a pitch that any sense of the duende - the spirit that possesses the true flamenco dancer - is absent. A dozen slim, beautiful girls in black velvet Armani all twirling and dipping as one just isn't playing the game. Not that there is anything wrong with Armani's involvement per se: his new-look flamenco dresses hug the torso, then flare out into oceans of liquid velvet. It is an inspired revamp of the traditional frills, retaining the fluidity of the fabric but along cleaner lines. This streamlining is roughly what Cortes himself is trying to achieve with his "Flamenco Fusion", borrowing effects from ballet, rock and catwalk in order to modernise an ancient art. He is keen to advertise his five years with the Ballet Nacional de Espana by including various balletic fillers of indifferent quality. One potentially interesting piece features a male dancer discovered sitting in a heap of black and red flamenco frills. We assume that he is in drag, until he stands up to reveal that the traditional ruffled train has been sewn to the arse of his skin-tight strides. The possibilities for this cunning sartorial stroke are considerable. Aside from the sexual ambiguity inherent in a costume that enables both sexes to be portrayed by one dancer, one is also reminded of the tender pas de deux that Astaire was able to enjoy with mops and so forth. What would Cortes's choreography create for this young man and his attendant frills? Not a lot. He should stick to solos.

The phenomenon of the charismatic flamenco soloist may be being billed as if it were an innovation, but Cortes is one of a long line of globetrotting gypsy artists such as Jose Greco, Antonio Gades and the great Antonio, who have all enjoyed considerable vogue over the years. Cortes differs from them because today's hype-merchants have been able to catapult him to stardom in a matter of months - and because as a performer he isn't really in the same class. He's an athletic dancer - a fact repulsively demonstrated by his permanently dripping chest - but far too much of his "charisma" is furnished by the simple, pretentious lighting design and rockstar production values. Far more appealing is the contribution of the divine Christbal Reyes, a veteran virtuoso last seen in Britain during his stint with the hugely popular Cumbre Flamenca. Having ditched the old Kevin Keegan perm in favour of a sort of Waddle bouffant, Reyes has also traded his armpit-high beige trousers and now sports black Armani. His speedy, audacious technique seems undiminished and in this over-orchestrated environment his wit and showmanship border on self-parody as, arms raised, nostrils wide, he sends up the macho posturings of the traditional flamenco soloist. For all Cortes's obvious vanities (only a vain man would topiarise his facial hair to such a ludicrous extent), he must have some humility to allow his uncle Christbal on the same programme. Reyes's playful manipulation of the audience is a reassuring reminder that Cortes, with his strong pedigree and fine training, may yet ripen into a more interesting, nuanced performer. Sexier, too.

Much capital has been made of Joaqun Cortes's sexiness and excitable journalists have pronounced that this topless flashdancer is "raw sex". It seems an odd claim to make about a sweaty young man with a silly beard - and this relentless use of sex as a box-office tool is a funny thing. You can understand Paul Raymond doing it, but is that really what the rest of us want from a night out? Call me old-fashioned, but I would have thought that great dance, passionately executed by a practised artist, was more what we look to the theatre to provide. Great sex I can get at home n

Cortes's 'Gipsy Passion' is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, Thurs to Sun (0171-589 8212). Standing-room only available