5 Women 5, Sadler's Wells, Flamenco Festival London

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The Independent Culture

Eva Yerbabuena is perhaps the biggest name in this year's flamenco festival at Sadler's Wells. She is certainly the biggest disappointment. 5 Women 5 is a desperate mix of thin dancing, mad scenes and bare-light-bulb theatricality.

Eva Yerbabuena is perhaps the biggest name in this year's flamenco festival at Sadler's Wells. She is certainly the biggest disappointment. 5 Women 5 is a desperate mix of thin dancing, mad scenes and bare-light-bulb theatricality.

The show starts with a woman sitting in a cheap armchair. A soprano wanders in, repeating the same high notes; the nee-naw of a police siren. 5 Women 5 keeps coming back to this, to the gloom of armchair and singer. Lights flicker, an overwrought voice speaks, a baby cries on the soundtrack.

That wouldn't matter too much if the dance scenes were stronger. But Yerbabuena, heralded as a flamenco star, seems strangely weak as performer and choreographer. She is joined by four more women, all in white but with different numbers of ruffles on their skirts, and by four men in white suits - very Saturday Night Fever. All nine dancers walk through the same stamps and poses.

Flamenco innovators often go in for this kind of formation dancing, with the same dreary effect. These dancers don't have the massed weight of a corps de ballet, but they lose the snap of individual rhythm. They're performers of modest technical accomplishment. One of Yerbabuena's women moves with style and assurance. The men are actively bad. The musicians, a live flamenco band, generate little heat.

This supporting cast isn't given much time in the spotlight. There are no solo opportunities for band or dancers. Instead, we get two long numbers from Yerbabuena, and an awful lot of trudging around.

It took me a while to identify Yerbabuena, who doesn't stand out. Her two solos do reveal greater technical command; she has fast feet, with precise taps and quick brushed steps. Drumming out patterns, she has exact control of speed and volume. Even so, her rhythm isn't compelling, and she can't draw these long sequences into coherent dance. Her torso is blurred and unyielding. She seems to slouch even when she pulls herself upright. When she parades slowly through her poses, the grand gestures lack authority. She sweeps her skirts, preparing for a big effect that never comes.

That leaves us with the concept. 5 Women 5 seems to be about finding oneself as a woman. The other dancers are aspects of Yerbabuena, emotions or threatening figures. It keeps them safely in the background while the star gets on with emoting. Each new confrontation involves staring eyes, spotlit poses and a change of costume. In this would-be stark production, Yerbabuena changes on stage, retreating to the shadows to swap jackets.

Most insultingly, there are mad scenes. Yerbabuena huddles in the chair, clutches her hair, wrestles with demons. The theatrical mad scene was a 19th-century commonplace, a star turn. But those operas and ballets can still be powerful: images of emotional collapse, of identity lost. Yerbabuena tips into madness without cause or context. The way she tells it, insanity is another frock to try on.

Ends tonight; festival ends Sunday (0870 737 7737)

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