You have only to look at the men's hairstyles to see what's happened to flamenco. Fifteen years ago, when Sadler's Wells began championing the art form, the typical male bailaore was a weaselly type in an ill-fitting jacket and out-of-date perm. Now there's a touch of the catwalk about him: he's young and sleek and looks as if he hangs out in Madrid's coolest clubs - many of which, incidentally, now host flamenco nights. At home in Spain, what was once a music-and-dance form obsessed with old people's memories has been reborn as a vibrant focus for fashion and creativity, and the stupendous opening event of this year's Flamenco Festival London broadcast that status delightedly.
Sara Baras, the emerging queen of the current generation, is neither a moderniser nor an outright purist. While she favours a slick, tightly choreographed presentation, framing solo numbers with sharply synchronised chorus work and ditching traditional frills for a streamlined look, she takes care not to blur the old distinctions of style. In Sabores ("flavours"), 13 numbers - whose titles simply describe their musical form: tangos, solea, buleria and so on - run on one after another without a break. It makes for a hefty evening - almost two hours without interval - but the way Baras modulates the show's energy minute by minute ensures that the dynamic never flags. In fact, the excitement builds to such dizzying intensity that your normally sober critic was heard to emit an involuntary yelp.
The start was artfully relaxed, with dancers and musicians mingling as if they were still backstage, limbering up and chatting and strapping their shoes. A rail of costumes is wheeled on, then off again, followed by a large painting of a woman in a mantilla (perhaps Baras's mother: her teacher and dedicatee of this show). Then, like mist, the scene dissolves to reveal an impressive line of seated musicians: three male singers, three guitarists, the now statutory percussionist beating an amplified box, and a fiddle player - a novel touch. The sound is rich and complex, a mite jazzy, but never aggressively loud: another sign that the new flamenco has come of age. Once, you covered your ears.
Generously, Baras shares her first appearance with two male guests, Jose Serrano and Luis Ortega, then gives each an entire number to himself. Ortega, lean and wolfish, devotes his to a Seguiriya, using castanets to set up a sophisticated call-and-reponse with his feet. Serrano is looser and more playful in his alegrias, wrenching back the shoulders of his jacket, strutting and jumping and showing off with a grin. But it's Baras the crowd have come for, and she repays the compliment mightily. Sleek as a sphinx, fierce as an amazon, she motors through a martinete, drilling her heels like power tools while scything the air with her arms. Hers is a big technique that suggests big, abstract ideas. When she reduces the dynamic to pianissimo an abyss seems to open up, with only the tremble of a heel between Baras and the silence of infinity.
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