Antonio Gades' Carmen, Sadler's Wells, London<br>Gala Flamenca Mujeres, Sadler's Wells, London

'Carmen' had energy but lacked passion; while a showcase for three women was a revelation
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The annual outburst of flamenco kicked off at Sadler's Wells last week, underlining the brimming health of the art form in its current resurgence. Interesting then, to include a work made 25 years ago when the flame of flamenco tradition, enfeebled for decades, was only just beginning to stutter back to life.

Carmen, as performed by the Antonio Gades Company, was a spin-off from a brilliant 1983 film directed by Carlos Saura. In the film, the story of Bizet's opera – in a flamenco production being rehearsed by dance students on some unnamed Spanish campus – is layered with a parallel tale in which the students' teacher, played by Antonio Gades, develops a Don José-like obsession with the girl playing Carmen. Tantalisingly, as fiction and "real life" stories progress to their bitter and violent ends, the viewer becomes less and less certain which is which.

Alas there is no such subtlety in the stage version. We get the familiar brazen hussy in a scarlet dress, flapping her skirts at fellow female factory workers and prowling and stamping her way from lover to lover and a character billed as Husband. The student element is reduced to one long – and admittedly impressive – opening sequence in which wave upon wave of young women in practice flamenco skirts, and young men in jumpers and jeans, surge downstage hammering out unison patterns with their feet as a teacher figure barks instructions. It's the best 10 minutes of the show.

For the remainder, it's the Carmen story stripped down to the point of bafflement. Something is wrong when, in a famous narrative that purports to be reduced to its vital elements, you find yourself wanting a printed summary. Almost worse is the lack of nuance. When strong, sturdy Stella Arauzo (what a name!) lasciviously circles her hips at Adrian Galia's Don José, it's more of a snarl than a come-on. And that's the way she stays: fierce, unlikeable, untouched by warmth or charm.

Not that the production lacks high spots. The tension is terrific in the catfight between Arauzo and her factory-girl rival, as opposing banks of stamping, skirt-tossing women line up behind them, goading them on. There's danger too in the stick-wielding stand-off between Galia and Joaquin Mulero's ruffian Husband, though plainly both dancers were chosen for their likeness to their film counterparts than for their dance prowess. Galia is no substitute for Gades (who died in 2004), whose flint-faced chain-smoking was as unforgettable as his dancing of the farruca.

The music works well enough, alternating blasts of recorded Bizet and flamenco voices and guitar, sometimes with the dancers belting out folk ballads in raucous unison. But for all its energy, the whole lacks spontaneity – and that, in flamenco, is fatal.

For combustability, you had to be there earlier in the week for Mujeres (Women), a gala shared between dance divas from three generations. The format couldn't be simpler: three women, exploring their phenomenal talents, supported by phenomenal musicians.

Merche Esmeralda, stately as a galleon, takes on the statutory Big Dress solo. It's a heroic achievement of skirt-management as much as anything, as she hefts around two kingsize duvets-worth of ruffles, twisting around its snaking bulk until she resembles a gnarly tree, or tucking it under one arm like a naughty child while she shoos away tragedy, disease and death with the other.

The much younger Belen Maya brings a contemporary edge, with glints of comedy. Her opening gambit is to travel the stage like a shuffling crab, hitching a shoulder or rocking a hip as she goes, while round, curvy Rocio Molina, at 24 the youngest dancer, seems to pull her movements up from the depths. No gimmicks, nothing flash, yet the sum total is an evening that feels inspired, in-the-moment and, in some ways, ultimate.



Festival continues at Sadler's Wells to 29 March (0844 871 0090)

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