The annual flamenco festival at Sadler's Wells is now in its fifth edition, and very handsome and confident it looks. Though I stop short of swallowing the full hype, having seen too many other fabulous purveyors of the art form to believe that this year's selection is "the best", it's still impressive to find such variety crammed into a fortnight. From hardcore traditionalism to trendy deconstruction, from one-dancer-and-a-guitar to bailaores in batas de cola (that's men in skirts to you and me), the festival caters to every taste. In its first minutes, though, it looked as if the headlining Maria Pagés was going to let the side down. Taped music? Surely not! But little by little you saw the method in her madness.
In setting her dances to scratchy old Carlos Gardel ballads, orchestrated folk songs, tunes from Bizet's Carmen and even some live Spanish rap, as well as the usual sevillianas, Pagés attempts a rounded picture of her beloved city of Seville. Here are not just postcard views (a twilit gypsy gathering on the banks of the Guadalquivir, the Moorish arches of the Alcázar), but also its more intimate heartbeat.
One number subtly evokes salon society in a dance for seated women, the testy snap and quiver of their fans as eloquent as gossip. Another gives a flavour of Seville's heady high-Catholicism, with Pagés brooding in darkness before a life-size icon of the Virgin, wrapped in a cloak of stars. At one point a man walks on trailing yards of scarlet fabric which, in a blink, becomes the boundary fence of a bullring, with Pagés as both toreador and beast.
Neither young nor pretty, yet just as far from being the familiar twinkly matron, Pagés has carved a unique niche for herself as a flamenco star. Forget the twining-tendril beauty of wrists and arms. Her tall, bony, almost awkward figure doesn't so much insinuate itself into the dance form's feminine curves as punch a way out of them. Jabbing elbows and shoulders into angles, jutting her hips in startlingly frank abandon, drumming her heels in an almost mannish show of muscle, Pagés's style is a specialised taste that I don't quite share. Yet this crowd was wild for her.
Whether newcomer or aficionado, people know artistic generosity when they see it, and Pagés gives her all. For me, though, the chief pleasures lay elsewhere: in the fabulously varied costuming (so glad the bland Armani look has had its day) and the storming, Force 10 engagement of all 23 dancers and musicians. Here were all the flamenco clichés you could want, the men kicking up a testosterone storm with the ever-present threat of ripped jackets, the women sleek as cats and purringly plump, the musicians partying like the world was going to end at any moment.
Festival runs to 16 March (0844 412 4300)Reuse content