Paco Pe&#241;a Flamenco Dance Company, Sadler's Wells, London<br/>Cia de Danca Deborah Colker, Barbican Theatre, London

Is it Spanish? Is it Venezuelan? Who cares &ndash; it's fantastico
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Paco Peña, you're already muttering...isn't he a guitarist? He is indeed, and a masterly one. But he's also an artist and scholar with a wide-ranging curiosity, and so it's natural that he should become the magnet and mentor of a dance troupe, drawing to him some of the finest musicians and dancers in Spain.

Never content to dish up mere entertainment, he has lately been exploring the flamenco diaspora – the dance and music traditions of Spanish-speaking Latin America which reflect back some of flamenco's fire, while remaining distinctly themselves. If Venezuelan dance were a mathematical formula, it might look something like (salsa hips + African beats) x Caribbean sunshine = wide smile. Nary a shadow of those Spanish gypsies' scowls.

But first, in their show Flamenco sin fronteras, the Paco Peña Dance Company wants to show us their baseline: the clamorous, clattering, keening and inescapably dark Iberian flamenco. There's no question of easing either us or themselves in gently. A flutter on the frets of Peña's fingerboard, a barrage of strumming, and we're thrust deep into a tense, extended muscular rant from Ramon Martinez, spraying hair oil with each terse multiple spin on the sole of his high-heeled boot. With other flamenco troupes, you recall, the men struggle to rise above a kind of preening petulance. Martinez is a knot of vivid concentration, admirable, even awesome, for the way he puts the art form first.

His counterpart, Angel Muñoz, is every inch his match, delivering a vehement farruca with gestures sharp enough to slice ham for tapas. Lovely Charo Espino is the crown jewel of the Spanish side, remarkable for the eloquent arch of her spine, and arms and hands that summon images of cactus flowers and Moorish ironwork. Still, you wouldn't dare to cross her.

As always with Paco Peña, the staging (by long-time collaborator Jude Kelly) is a model of simplicity. A strip of metal chairs ranged right and left – the Spanish on one side, Venezuelans on the other – and a backdrop of white fringed banners, like shawls hung out to dry. As the evening progresses, these take on the hues of the appropriate national flags. A neat idea, and pretty too.

The Venezuelan music is a revelation: complex, light-fingered African rhythms overlaid with the most delicate off-kilter melodies, tossed off with an insouciant charm. Singer Carlos Talez has a voice so innocent you want to cuddle him. A range of baby guitars, from mandolin to Venezuela's national instrument, the tinkling cuatro, combine to sound like bubbles popping in a party cocktail. And who knew that maracas could deliver such subtleties?

If the show has a fault, it's that the audience comes away not really knowing much more than it did at the start about the cultural traffic between Spain and its former colony. Venezuelan dancer Daniela Tugues bounces cheerfully through numbers that involve flapping her skirts like a fairy with a birthday, or jumping with both feet outstretched in front. She also dances flamenco in synch with her proud Spanish opposite. But it's not always clear (despite a chart printed in the programme) quite what comes from where, and why.

This is a minor cavil given performances of this quality. The combined oomph of stupendous artistry on both sides leaves your scalp a-tingle. Who cares, finally, how a + b turns into c? What counts is that a creative fuse is lit, and, whoosh, off it goes.

Over at the Barbican, the Brazilian Deborah Colker was touting more prosaic fare. Not that the Rio-born choreographer lacks ideas or energy. Far from it. Cruel, her latest vehicle for her 17-strong company, is, like all her work, strongly athletic, and built around striking props: a giant macramé lamp, a 25ft table, a series of mirrored swing doors. The engineering must have cost a mint.

Quite where the cruelty comes in is a moot point. There's a love-in for modish urban couples. There's a scene in which some of the women wield sharp knives. Colker herself, magnificent at 50, grabs some of the sauciest moments. At least, I think she was the one cavorting with two young muscular guys stripped to the waist. You go, girl.

However, the manic amalgam of loud music – sometimes two tracks at once! – eventually had me covering my ears. And Colker's playful ways with apparatus soon become tiresome. That old Harry Worth gag, swinging one leg against a reflective surface ... oh please.

Paco Peña shows a new company work at the Edinburgh Festival next month

Next Week:

Nederlands Dans Theater – the world's sleekest, sexiest contemporary dance company – marks its half-century