As the British winter drags on, the Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival promises a fortnight of bright colour and rousing rhythm. Featuring a range of singers, dancers and flamenco styles, it opened with Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras.
Baras, who appeared at the 2005 festival, has "got art" since we last saw her. Her strength and skill is still there, but you have to wait longer for it. There's a lot of wafting around. The show Sabores, which premiered in Paris in December, starts with an artful picture of stage preparation. A hat, a guitar and a pair of shoes wait in a spotlight; dancers wander on, fixing their hair, buckling their shoes. A portrait of a flamenco dancer is carried on, then carried off again.
Baras and her troupe show fluent upper bodies, tightly drilled corps-work. The women swish and flow, and their rhythm has some bite. Baras herself is an exuberant dancer with a pliant torso. Her solos start with slow, sweeping movements before erupting into stamped footwork. She draws herself up with authority, but she doesn't quite have the grandeur for those early movements. She's at her best when at her most cheerful and extravert. In those introductions, I found myself waiting for the explosion.
It is worth waiting for. Baras has strong feet and clear rhythm, putting a range of sound into her footwork. Baras's first show was a recital with an all-female cast. She has since shown an interest in dances traditionally danced by men, showing off her force without loss of femininity. In Sabores, she has men in her corps, plus two male guest artists. Luis Ortega dances a strutting, macho solo, taking forceful poses that he can't quite live up to. Those braced positions need stronger, clearer line, greater weight and conviction. José Serrano, a regular guest with Baras, is a more relaxed performer, showing greater authority and cleaner footwork.
Baras designs her own costumes, often to striking effect. One jersey dress is shaded from dove-grey neckline to black hemline. She folds the full skirt around her, making stripes and patterns, or flings it out in a swirl of soft shadow.
Baras is an essentially traditional performer, and her new stagecraft tends to dilute the effect. Attention is distracted away from the heart of flamenco, the shared rhythm created by dancer and musician.
I had never seen a dancer take a standing ovation just for walking on. The Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya turned 80 last year, with galas in Moscow and now London. At Covent Garden, the audience rose to its feet at the sight of her, while she conducted the applause, undulating her long arms as if warming up for just one more Dying Swan.
Plisetskaya was one of 20th-century ballet's stars. Fifty years on, her name is still associated with a flying leap: the Plisetskaya head-kick, a jump with back leg flung up behind. Film, screened at several points, recorded her thrilling athleticism. In her grand finale, Ave Maya, a piece of diva worship by Béjart, she waves fans, does geisha toddles (which don't work in 4in heels) before demanding more applause.
Plisetskaya aside, this was a starry gala, arranged by Andris Liepa with big names from the Kirov, Royal Ballet and Bolshoi, and music from the orchestra of English National Ballet. It was mostly insubstantial fare, with plenty of frills and sequins. Sadly, the drama came when the Royal Ballet's Ivan Putrov, dancing gorgeously, fell and stayed down, obviously injured.
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