Flamenco Festival, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

You could put it down to an especially dull, dank February, but Sadler's Wells has struck gold with its third annual season of flamenco. Even Alastair Spalding, the theatre's normally sanguine artistic director, looked dazed and amazed as he fought through the throng who'd turned out for Ballet Flamenco de Andalucia. "London," he told me, "has an insatiable appetite for this stuff".

On paper, this show was no more or less exciting a prospect than any other on the festival line-up. But though the company is new to a British audience, its director and choreographer is not. I can't be alone in having been introduced to flamenco by the films of Carlos Saura in the early 1980s, and Cristina Hoyos - no spring chicken even then - was memorable in all of them: Carmen, El Amor Brujo, Blood Wedding. Though no promises were issued at Sadler's Wells, clearly fans were hoping that La Hoyos would take a solo spot or two, flamenco being one of those rare dance forms where age doesn't write you out of the score.

And there she was, now going easy on the zapateado, the shiver-heeled footwork that plays havoc with dancers' knee-joints, but still holding us captive with her signature mix of curvaceous gesture and gimlet-eyed rhythmic severity. The upper-body flexibility may be gone, but the quick hands and arms are a vortex of feminine wiles, alluring and flickering and mischievous.

Compared with Jose Antonio's 30-strong National Ballet of Spain, the biggest company in the festival, Hoyos's outfit is modest in scale. Yet its impact in Viaje al Sur (Journey South) is maximised by subtle staging and a sense of spontaneous delight. Where National Ballet of Spain was almost military in its tight-drilled patterns, zigzags of bodies interleaving with the precision of saw blades, the Andalucian troupe was more relaxed. The girls group and disperse in socially realistic encounters, the boys jump gleefully aboard large leather suitcases to crack out rhythms in hard shoes.

Both shows were designed to spotlight mature talents, and though Antonio's best suit was a cross-dressed duet with a girl posing as a matador, it was Hoyos who proved the more adventurous. Her dances seem free-form, though all are anchored in traditional rhythms. Next year, perhaps, Sadler's Wells might run audience teach-ins so that we non-aficionados can learn the patterns that underlie each flamenco form. How I'd love to be able to mark the palmas like the Spanish girls sitting near me, clapping quietly in synch with the musicians.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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