Eva Yerbabuena, Sadler's Wells, London<br/>Ballet Black, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

Give it up for Yerbabuena, Spain's high priestess of pain
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The Independent Culture

February is the month to mount a festival of flamenco in London – a shaft of Spanish sunlight to pierce late winter's gloom.

Highlight of the first week was the volcanic Israel Galvan, sending audiences out into the night, their heads shaking in disbelief. And people still haven't stopped talking about Rocio Molina, the sensational 26-year-old whose show began with her dancing in her knickers, adding clothes as the night went on. So you might expect Eva Yerbabuena, as festival veteran and perennial favourite, to rest on her laurels. But she, too, keeps redefining the territory, and her latest offering, Cuando Yo Era ("When I Was ...") is her most powerful work in years.

Forget the merry touristic clichés, the fans and frills and clacking castanets. Yerbabuena is Spain's high-priestess of pain. For her, flamenco is a language forged in times of poverty and despair, ready to express the most testing episodes of personal and social history. In the past, this has led Yerbabuena into murky inscrutability, never less than passionate, but hard work to watch. This new piece, though, is blessed with a rough kind of story – a scenario, at least.

It's the Spanish Civil War. In a gruesome opening image straight from Goya, three prisoners, hands bound, are lined up on their knees to be shot. Two of them fall like skittles. It's the split second before the third goes down that expands into the next 60 minutes, in the full emotional journey of the captive's fierce but ultimately despairing lover.

Yerbabuena is a bodily paradox that today's weight-conscious young girls would do well to heed. Short and decidedly buxom, still she cuts an athletic figure, angular, even, as she jabs her elbows, juts alternate hips, or uncoils herself, vertebra by vertebra, into aggrandising stretches. Mistress of the long, slow burn, her control of changing moods is thrilling. Launching into an extended fantasy of heel-work, clutching the hem of her skirt to her chest, she goes from terrified girl to beatified saint to tiger-woman in one long unbroken arc.

Musically, this is world-class fare, spun from the dazzling fretwork of composer-guitarist Paco Jarana, who happens to be the dancer's husband, abetted by two fabulous male voices, and a small army of fervid hand-clappers and box-thwackers.

Such is the show's sustained emotive power that even when Yerbabuena turns craft-potter – undressing to her petticoat to shape wet clay on a potter's wheel, getting soaked and spattered in the process, and finally smashing the object with her fist – it comes across not as a bizarre gimmick, but a bold visualising of fate.

Only rarely does classical ballet expose such raw emotion. Too often it's dogged by a compunction to please that's encouraged, sweetly at best, cheesily at worst, in dancers from their very first class. Ballet Black, now 10 years old, has been around long enough to have grown out of it. But on the strength of its anniversary show, it still has one foot stuck in the land of Look-at-me-I-can-do-this – a pity when it exists to provide role models for budding dancers of colour.

The newest work, Orpheus, a company commission from William Tuckett, goes some way to rectify things, with its dark classical theme and 1947 Stravinsky score, which can't help but prompt comparisons with Balanchine. Yet Tuckett wins points for the graphic starkness of his treatment of the story – damned by his impatience to look back at Euridice, Orpheus is ripped apart by dogs – and the dancing uniformly gleams.

Ballet Black: Cambridge Arts Theatre (01223 503333) tonight and Mon, then touring

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert contemplates Earth's fragility, with William Forsythe

Dance Choice

Ailey 2 is the spunky feeder company of the legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and is on a rare UK tour. A varying bill includes Robert Battle's visceral urban jungle number, The Hunt, and Ailey's own roof-raiser Revelations, set to gospel tracks. King's Theatre, Glasgow, Tue & Wed; Nottingham Playhouse, Fri & Sat.

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