Eva Yerbabuena, Sadler's Wells, London

Caramba! This one's the real tortilla
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The Independent Culture

Hardly a year goes by without some fresh claim being made for the title "Hottest new flamenco talent to come out of Spain".

Hardly a year goes by without some fresh claim being made for the title "Hottest new flamenco talent to come out of Spain". But while it's true that flamenco is enjoying a dramatic renaissance in its home country, centred on the now very hip flamenco clubs in Madrid, it's also true that the acts that get exported are not necessarily the best. A touch of circumspection can be useful when weighing up their various claims. Any act so lacklustre that it needs to be costumed by Giorgio Armani can forget it. And any that claims to be breaking the mould ­ what, again? ­ almost certainly isn't. The first remarkable thing about 31-year-old Eva Yerbabuena is that she makes barely any claims at all. And she, it turns out, is the real tortilla.

La Yerbabuena does not have an especially striking physique. Others before her ­ like the stern and wiry Cristina Hoyas ­ have struck grander profiles, or found greater elegance of line in flamenco's complex circuitry. Other hands have coiled and curled with more perfumed refinement. Other feet (like those of La Tati) have drummed up a more furious froth. Yerbabuena looks gentle and unremarkable until she begins to move. Then she ceases to be a young woman possessed of average good looks. She becomes a woman possessed.

As the film director Mike Figgis writes in the programme (he featured Yerbabuena in his 1997 documentary Flamenco Women, and is clearly smitten), flamenco dance is chiefly a female art form. It's about women's culture and women's sensuality. Granted, there are male dancers and the guitarists are always men. But the women are invariably stronger, more expressive. And I can't think I'm the first to notice that the best, most inspired flamenco dance also appears to make the old young, and endow the young with an ancient wisdom. It's as if merely tapping into its well-trodden forms gives access to generations of female experience. And that's the transformation that takes place when La Yerbabuena gets into her stride.

Her show, simply titled Eva, has a clean, unfussy format. It opens and closes with a pensive Yerbabuena alone on stage dreaming of past and future to guitar music from a wind-up gramophone. In between are six set pieces exploring different musical moods and dance styles, either solo, or performed by a smart, tight backing group of three men and two women. There is never any question of this being one of those fiesta free-for-alls in which everyone gets to shine. This is a one-woman show, and she is worth it.

Almost swamped in a giant Mr Whippy of a dress with a fan-tail of ruffles that she kicks testily behind her now and then, Yerbabuena dances her first big number, a granaina, with a full-on engagement with the past. Her lower half trapped in the stiff confines of the skirt, she uses just her upper body to express the stifled emotions of a woman bound by society's expectations. She's a cat chasing her own tail, angry, frustrated. She's an icon of womanhood, untouchable, proud.

Watching a great flamenco dancer submerge her own personality into the infinitely greater personality of the artform, you realise how irrelevant are the arguments over tradition and innovation. What is remarkable about Yerbabuena is that, whether dancing her own free-style in a slip dress, or dancing a formal solea in demure ruffles and a shawl, she makes some kind of spiritual contact with both the present and the vast, sprawling past. The present is there in her extemporising freedom. Not that every step isn't set and rehearsed. But this is an artist alert to a hundred different nuances and possibilities at any given moment.

The backing quintet present the more usual approach to theatre flamenco, dancing in tightly ordered unisons, their gestures beautifully matched and clean. Yerbabuena takes credit for this striking modern choreography and also, for the satisfying balance of the evening as a whole. There is just enough of everything ­ singers (heart-rending), instrumental music (superb), solo and group dancing ­ and not a minute too much. Eva Yerbabuena may not have the flashiest technique, but she has something rarer. She has the kind of artistry that appears once in a generation, if at all.

j.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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