The Flamenco Festival, London

They came in search of Spanish passion. So guess what happened next...
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The Independent Culture

When flamenco returned from the dead some 15 years ago the emphasis was all on tradition. What audiences wanted was a slug of raw spirit after all those decades of weak sangria. But the scene has moved on since then. The major stars are no longer grizzled men or haughty matrons who remember Franco. Flamenco music has opened itself to every new current going, from jazz to Moroccan pop.

When flamenco returned from the dead some 15 years ago the emphasis was all on tradition. What audiences wanted was a slug of raw spirit after all those decades of weak sangria. But the scene has moved on since then. The major stars are no longer grizzled men or haughty matrons who remember Franco. Flamenco music has opened itself to every new current going, from jazz to Moroccan pop.

The point of Flamenco Festival London, now in its second year, is to showcase these developments. Some names are already familiar: Sara Baras and Eva Yerbabuena have been at Sadler's Wells before. But no one could have predicted the surprising paths these two divas are taking.

Eva Yerbabuena, still only 34, was sold as the more traditional of the two. But 5 Women 5, the through-composed piece she brought this time, suggests a practitioner desperately rattling the bars of a form she finds restricting. Ambitious to a fault, 5 Women 5 is a flamenco tour of the female psyche, following Yerbabuena on an emotional journey of ambition, motherhood, depression and madness, crudely sign-posted by melodramatic touches. The live music (by the dancer's husband, Francisco Juarana) cuts to recorded sounds of a baby gurgling. We see Yerbabuena staggering about the stage holding her head as the others dance unheedingly on. Several times Yerbabuena slumps in an armchair while an operatic soprano croons folk melodies over her. The endless introspection is lowering.

As one who once shared a stage with Joaquin Cortes, the dancer is keen to distance her artistry from the flashier end of the business. But at Monday's first night you could almost feel the temperature dropping as the audience clocked what they were in for. They'd come to see a future legend, and what they were getting was a largely indifferent troupe. Dull formation choreography made any individual snap and crackle the nine dancers might possess look distinctly soggy.

It's only when Yerbabuena takes the floor alone that she becomes extraordinary. Small and comely, she cuts an unimposing figure, but once the focus closes in, her subtlety tells. Not for her the usual wild extremes of temperament. Her intensity comes from a kind of dangerous winding down, plucking up her skirts with epicurean care and twisting from the waist with exquisite slowness and an expression of something like pain. Roused by the slow-burning drama of her predicament, she launches a barrage of footwork that isn't the usual showing off. This is an expression of personal spirit as she modulates the speed and volume of her drummed heels with astounding command, adding insouciant flicks at the floor as if rhythm alone didn't quite satisfy her.

At the height of this display, Yerbabuena looks possessed, orgasmic, and something of that experience transfers to each spectator. For a few moments, the entire theatre shares a moment of duende - the indefinable hit that flamenco aims for every time. Perhaps Yerbabuena herself doubts her ability to make this happen, but seeking anonymity isn't going to help. By contrast, her rival, Sara Baras, cast as the arch moderniser when she first appeared here five years ago, grounds her show Suenos (Dreams) entirely on traditional numbers - solea, jaleo and the rest. Tall, lean and glossily confident, the former catwalk model doesn't put a foot wrong. Costumes (to her own design) are slinky and vibrantly coloured. Music, incorporating jazzy elements, is a sophisticated barrage of sounds. Her seven dancers are slickly drilled and chic, but there's never any question who's boss. Even the guest star, Jose Serrano, has a baggy, hang-dog air that gives him sex appeal enough but no threat to Baras's own.

Queen of all she surveys, she's most thrilling in her account of the farruca, traditionally a male dance but perfectly suited to her sharp attack, chiselled line and machined footwork. Her closing party piece, purring her heels while cruising the stage like a galleon in full sail, brings the house down.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

The Flamenco Festival (0870 737 7737) ends tonight

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