Paco Pena, Peacock Theatre, London

The art of spontaneous combustion
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The Independent Culture

It takes about four minutes to register the quality of the latest offering from flamenco supremo Paco Pena. In deep shadow, out of deep silence, a man bangs a rhythm with a stick. Then comes the voice, a rasping wail, ranging over microtones the way a bull might negotiate a trail in the Sierra Nevada. Anguished, rebellious, the song meanders unaccompanied for several stanzas. Then three guitars lob harmony into the mix, and the shock of this sudden confluence almost lifts you out of your seat. The singer is still bang in tune.

The London-based guitarist attracts the very finest musicians and dancers in Spain, not just by the star quality of his solo playing but by his quietly profound understanding of the art form. Theatrical gimmicks have no place in Pena's world. His shows simply draw together like-minded artists with a view to bringing about a kind of spontaneous combustion, creating an experience each night that's as fresh for the performers as for the audience.

This programme, titled A Compas!, sets out to highlight flamenco's rhythmic aspect - the compas being the strict temporal structure within which each artist improvises. In Pena's solo guitar number, it emerges in lusciously shaped phrases, intricately voiced and free as water. In his duet with castanet virtuoso Charo Espino it becomes an electrifying dialogue, so fast and alert that it's comic, especially when she lets the castanets wander up her arm, as if they had a purring life of their own.

Just three dancers sustain the evening's two-and-a-half hours - a feat of stamina for a start, but also a triumph of creativity. In most flamenco presentations, the excitement takes time to build, traditionally peaking in a buleria to send us all home in a party mood.

This one starts on a high and pushes higher, until the normally sober house is at a pitch of near-delirium and the dancers bristle with reactivity, challenging each other to respond with even more intensity, more fire, and more sheer style to the music's complex urgings.

Maria Jose Franco looks a mere slip of a thing until you see her in an alborea, flapping her skirts as if beating off a succession of angry geese, or dispensing furious justice to some imaginary errant mate. But the spotlight fixes on the men: Angel Munoz is a beacon of stylish line and masculine beauty, Ramon Martinez a ball of contradictions, one moment the swaggering joker, booting imaginary footballs and ironically twitching his groin, the next knotting his limbs in a free-style, avant-garde response. What doesn't waver is the sense of fierce commitment to flamenco's life-enhancing, life-celebrating values. If you only ever see flamenco once in your life, make it this.

Peacock Theatre, London WC2 (0870 737 0337) to 13 May.