Flamenco Festival -
by Emma Pegler
February 15 2004 -- Sadler's Wells, London
I have hesitated to put pen to paper on the subject of Maria Pages as a conflict of interest has been holding me back. I wholeheartedly support the concept of a flamenco festival in London and, whilst I still feel that flamenco is at its best in smoky bars in the mother country, I will take it in any form I can get it. Sanitised and self-contained on stage will do if improvised and spontaneous flamenco in an intimate bar is not available. The ‘but’ is that Maria Pages’ Company looked like a company using the word ‘flamenco’ to procure airtime to deliver something completely different. There are many forms of dance that loosely fall under the generic heading ‘flamenco’ and Pages seemed tired of all of them. It is possible to develop flamenco, to fuse it with contemporary dance, to reduce if to the sum of its parts, to alter the basic model…but the heart has to stay intact. Rafael Amargo’s take on Garcia Lorca’s “Poeta en Nueva York” (“Poet in New York”) is a perfect example of the legitimate development of flamenco. Amargo keeps coming back to flamenco’s central core, its soul. If the choreographer does not do this, something emerges which is not flamenco at all. Which would be fine if the something else captures your attention. “El perro andaluz. Burlerias” and “Flamenco Republic,” however, left me cold and indifferent to what they might be.
That Pages is a seasoned flamenco dancer is not in question. There were glimmers of meaningful dance from her throughout the evening, all worthy of her origins in Sevilla, Antonio Gades’ Company, Rafael Aguilar’s Company and Saura’s films. Rather, it was her attempts to make flamenco something else that palled. The nadir of the evening was the tango set to Piazzolla. Anyone who knows anything about tango knows how challenging it is to attempt to set tango dance to it, let alone flamenco. Piazzolla was practically drummed out of the tango fraternity because, it was alleged, he had taken the music to a place where it was impossible to dance. Later, it was discovered that actually he had produced music that demanded attention first – you have to listen to each piece for several minutes to really understand what it means before you dare dance a step. (In Buenos Aires now, this is the approach common for ‘all’ types of tango music – couples do not link arms for several chords.) Pages had the company careering across the stage in what we tango aficionados condescendingly call ‘European tango’ complete with flicking heads but minus intricate footwork and inner passion. Too ambitious, too little tango, let alone flamenco, and too long.
Part of the problem is that Pages outshines the rest of the Company. The dancers are technically accomplished but have little spark of independence and that, I thought, was the whole point of flamenco. However much it is choreographed, it has to leave room for individual expression because each performer, however young or inexperienced, has his or her own flamenco soul. (Which is why we love the older flamenco singers to break rank and hoist their skirts for an impromptu performance – unbridled expression and the need to dance set flamenco apart from other dance forms.) Perhaps this habit of homogeneity is one picked up from Pages’ days as the flamenco feature with “Riverdance” where long lines of dancers barely distinguishable from the rest create a spectacle of uniform movement akin to the Russian army marching across Red Square. The only distinguishable figure was that of Pages. That may have been deliberate of accidental – I couldn’t tell which. Even her partner, Angel Munoz, looked more like an accessory rather than her leading man.
Matters improved after the tango fiasco but I (and my Spanish companions) had been alienated. Even with more traditional fare I saw too many attempts to “de-flamenco” the point of the evening. Ironically the surrounding paraphernalia of the performance is good. Costumes are simple but cut effectively to create big and meaningful movement out of mere weight changes. Jose Maria Sanchez’s lighting plan for “el perro andaluz” is quite brilliant. Lights isolate the dancers to produce an illumination with a spectral effect – the company of clicking heels moving in dead-pan unison across the stage is powerful. Yet the overall effect of the evening is one of form over substance: too much choreography and not enough dance.