Dance: Paco Pena, the saviour of flamenco

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's So rare that it may be unique. Whoever heard of a world-class virtuoso who'd rather lurk in the shadows than take centre-stage, whose every gesture urges his fellow stars to greater brilliance? Paco Pena is that man, a guitarist with a mission to restore to the modern phenomenon of staged, touring flamenco the true balance of power. Cante, baile. First song, then dance. In his company's latest show, Arte e Pasion, the small, greying Andalusian looks on like a kindly wizard as the ingredients in his crucible fizzle into life. Art and passion don't come more potent than this.

Pena sets out his stall with an opening of pure song. Antonio Reyes, familiar from previous visits, launches a heavy-voiced lament against the sound and silhouette of blacksmiths hammering at the forge. "I beat the iron to my will/ Just as my own sorrow/ Beats me down," he wails, the little throaty upward licks at the end of each phrase suggesting that while the gypsy has life, he has fight in him.

The compound rhythms of the forge (smithying was the flamencos' trade) are soon picked up in the metal toe-caps of Antonio Alcazar and Angel Munoz, who deliver their martinete - a stamping duet of challenging masculine postures - with resounding clarity. Charo Espino, a heavy-boned young beauty, ushers in the feminine element with a bitter solea set to the words: "This gypsy, she deserves/ To be melted and made new/ Like church bells that don't ring true." More iron, more pain. Later, of course, she will turn skittish, twisting extravagantly to chase her own ankle-length skirt-frills, a wildcat trying to catch its tail.

We have seen enough flamenco in this country to recognise the extremes of its terrain. What Pena offers is a purified landscape, stripped of the hollow theatricality that besets so many attempts to stage this fierce vernacular art. (Gypsies summoning dark spirits in a cellar in Cadiz - we never really swallowed it, did we?)

What comes through in this finely crafted programme is a kind of masterclass in style, a framing of the elements without fuss or frills. A quartet of girls in chastely fastened shawls form a simple line to show off their exquisite unison, their snaking arms and hips, and the evocative fingerwork that says, not here is the church and here the steeple, but here are bulls' horns, curling tresses, trailing flowers, a lover's caress.

Pena's concentration on musical forms turns up some delicious novelties. For the zapateado - the climactic heel-purring number that so often becomes a flashy test of stamina - he turns the volume low, draws his guitar quartet into the spotlight, and brings on his rangy new 22-year-old star, Angel Munoz, for a game of "you play it, I'll dance it". The familiar moorish element is absent from what follows - one piece sounds uncannily like an Irish jig - and in the unaccustomed hush for once we hear all the tremulous whisperings of the guitars' inner parts. So closely are music and dance enmeshed, that when Muniz repeats each sequence without accompaniment, we actually re-hear the melody in the delicate clip and scrape of his feet.

After the excesses of recent flamenco shows - which have seemed to equate good music with loud music, virtuosity with speed, sexiness with bare flesh - I'd thought perhaps the form was finished. In Arte e Pasion Paco Pena has performed a miracle - he has made flamenco fresh and new.

The brooding, raw-edged vocal style of rock songstress Polly Jean Harvey summoned a matching response from the young choreographer Mark Bruce in Dance Hall at Louse Point, a danced version of her album. The trouble is, like flamenco, rock's rawness is cultivated, not a result of lack of care. As PJ growls out her brutal, brilliant ballads, Bruce's dancers flail about like scraps of litter caught up in an aircraft's vapour jet. The rest of the time they spend flat on their backs, apparently snogging in heaps, or boogying aimlessly around the singer's mike. This looks not so much like the work of a choreographer as of an E-crazed groupie.

Paco Pena Co: Peacock, WC2 (0171 314 8800), to 1 Mar. Dance Hall at Louse Point: QEH, SE1 (0171 960 4242), tonight; Sheffield Crucible (0114 276 9922), Mon & Tues; Newcastle Playhouse (0191 230 5151), 17-19 Feb; Oxford Playhouse (01865 7986000), 21 Feb.

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