Rafael Amargo

Flamenco - 'Poeta en Nueva York'

by Emma Pegler

September, 2003 -- Teatro Albeniz, Madrid

Rafael is the kind of flamenco dancer you want Joaquin Cortes to be. He is tall, muscly and very sexy. He dances like a dream in a way that brings flamenco firmly in to the 21st century while managing to preserve the traditional structure of the dance and, most importantly, its spirit. He has his own company and choreographs its productions.
He is considered a national treasure. The Spanish national daily newspaper 'El Mundo' described him as “having drunk from the fountains of the most pure flamenco...” He has assimilated a multitude of influences into his genre of flamenco to produce something that it totally traditional and yet thoroughly of today. At 25, he has arrived, according to another daily, 'El Pais,' at the point of being considered one of the most promising flamenco talents to have emerged in many years. This is praise indeed since rarely do 25 year olds figure as major talents in flamenco. Spaniards respect age and patina in their dancers.

During the performance of Amargo's “Poeta en Nueva York” at the atmospheric Teatro Albeniz in downtown Madrid, I was struck by the fact that the Company comprises uniformly strong dancers, some of whom dance every bit as well as Amargo himself. It is my frequent disappointment to find that the star is the only person worth seeing in the star's company. I remember counting the minutes between Baryshnikov's cameo appearances when his White Oak Project came to London. Amargo stands out, not because he is a rose amongst thorns, but because he is a superb showman and knows how to work an audience -- all in a very understated way. As with all people wielding Factor X, it is difficult to put your finger on what makes him stand out from the crowd.  A fiery 'madrileno' with a haughty deportment and dark smouldering looks, he is exceptionally impressive to look at. So are many other flamenco dancers. Yet he knows when to deploy that smouldering, dark look -- he understands variety and subtleties. He 'can' strike a pose. Yet he doesn't use it all the time. I am thinking back to a performance given by Joaquin Cortes – another exponent of 'modern flamenco' – in the Royal Albert Hall some years ago. There was absolutely no pause between struts. The monotony of sustained arrogance switches off the senses. A good flamenco performance, however, imperceptibly pierces the epidermis and ultimately penetrates the soul.

Experiments in bringing flamenco up to date and in incorporating other dance influences most often fail. Antonio Gades is the maestro in this arena, and I think his 'Carmen' is the best example of the genre.  There are few other successful examples.  Amargo also successfully imports contemporary dance and other dance styles that are distinctly non-flamenco. The incorporations are so seamless that it is hard to see from ‘where' the steps and moves originate.

The dancing illustrates the poems from the book of poetry Federico Garcia Lorca wrote on his prodigious trip to New York. The Spaniards are fiercely proud of, and knowledgeable about, their poet and the manuscript of "Poeta" has been embroiled for years in litigation as to its ownership. The manuscript was finally sold at Christies in London in the summer. The poems are pre-filmed readings by famous Spanish actresses. Amargo uses film to good effect. One of the most poignant scenes is the silhouette of the elegant actress Marisa Paredes (who has appeared in Almodovar films and so is also well-known outside of Spain) reading the poem 'Jewish Cemetery' against a backdrop of masses of gravestones. Other poems are read against the striking skyline of Manhattan. The use of film is complementary and unobtrusive. Your eye moves comfortably from the dancers to the flamenco singers and guitarists (as with most flamenco, the music is part of the scenery and the musicians are located on stage) and the to the reciter and the film.

The costumes are also up-to-date.  They preserve the line of the flamenco dress for the women: such as long black silk skirts cut on the cross to create movement. Yet the design adds some pzazz: such as the skirts flicking open to reveal vampish red lining and strong thighs disappearing into sexy leather boots. As the dancers turn their backs, they reveal taut muscles above the line of their halter necks. I have always wondered why flamenco dancers, however modern, always wear plain, verging on the frumpy, long figure-hugging, but not figure-forgiving, dresses. That is one area where Cortes should be congratulated – he blew the dust off flamenco clothes and brought in Armani.

The one criticism of the evening was that after what seemed to be a rousing and emotional close, complete with bows and applause, the action came back but this time in Cuba, Garcia Lorca's next stop after New York. The tone was lighter and jokier and, although it demonstrated further talents of the dancers, it just dragged on too long. Amargo moved from dramatist to satirist and comedian and, like an excited puppy, just wouldn't let the curtain drop at the end because he couldn't bear to be separated from his adoring fans. It was the first time in my life that I have left the auditorium before the final curtain falls. It is normally something I consider rude. In this case I thought Amargo was rude for not letting us off the hero worship a little earlier.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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