Flamenco Festival, Sadler's Wells, London

A dance to the music of time

Zoë Anderson
Tuesday 17 March 2009 01:00 GMT

This year's Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival, a fortnight of music and dance, got off to a triumphant start. Gala Flamenca Mujeres presents three generations of flamenco, three powerful female soloists. Merche Esmeralda, Belen Maya and Rocio Molina create an evening of grand authority and individuality.

The staging is simple. The women dance on a bare stage, framed by their musicians and by Oscar Gomez's atmospheric lighting. The glamour and contrast come from these strong personalities, amplified by different flamenco styles.

Within the same form, within traditional solos, the differences are still immense. Merche Esmeralda, who has been winning major flamenco awards since 1968, is the grande dame of the evening. She's a stern, proud figure, with imperious musical timing. She reaches out with her arms, slow and grand – then pulls them up, snap! on the music, getting to the final pose with startling speed.

Esmeralda also dances a melancholy modern solo, with a suggestion of dignified lament. But she's strongest in her traditional numbers, stamping on her heels or manipulating her skirts. She lifts her long, ruffled train like a banner, fierce enough to go into battle, then winds it about herself like a garland.

Belen Maya has a contemporary edge, even in traditional solos. She crosses the stage in a fast sideways glide that looks almost robotic, her arms swinging stiffly. Then she shimmies back, torso undulating, hips rocking from side to side. It's a solo that piles up contrasts. She'll circle a hip or a shoulder, then plunge into full-body movement.

Rocio Molina, the youngest of these dancers, seems to pull her movements up from the depths. Her dancing pours out, rich and weighted: I can't imagine her doing anything lightweight or merely flashy. That grounded quality is wonderful in slow phrases, but it's just as good in her speedy footwork. The line of her feet is always sharp and clear, even as she stamps out cascades of fast rhythms.

Maya and Molina prowl around each other in a duet. Standing side by side, they move into unison or break out of it, Maya's stark isolations against Molina's velvet smoothness. The dance stars are supported by a fine flamenco band, singers and percussion. Guest star Diana Navarro sings wailing, keening solos, her voice both strong and raw.

The gala ends with the three women dancing together, urging each other on to short solos. Maya twists and flutters a scarlet fan. Molina dances with castanets, setting their rattle against that of her feet.

Merche Esmeralda brings on a fringed white shawl, pulling the fabric taut then shaking it into flickering ripples. At last all three women dance together, kicking out their red ruffled skirts as they spin.

To 29 March. Rocío Molina dances with her company tonight (0844 412 4300)

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