Paco Peña

'Flamenco in Concert'

by Toba Singer

February 21, 2003 -- Marin Center, San Rafael, California

Admittedly, I have seen only a few flamenco performances and several Antonio Gades films in my short tenure as a reviewer. However, the format of this flamenco evening seemed a little out of keeping with the café, stage and filmed performances I have seen previously. The company’s name is the name of the lead guitarist, and he is first on the bill. His guitar playing is unaffected, and comes in a warm, rich and fluid thrum with easy phrasing of complex melodies. The sound of this single instrument fills up the enormous concert hall at Marin Center, as Peña leans into his guitar and manages to pull more and more out of the melody. Each phrase achieves a moment of equilibrium before he goes on to the next. He teases out gentle trills that steadily accelerate until they segue into a dance rhythm built on buoyant arpeggios. After resounding applause, Peña is joined by two more guitarists who play perfectly syncopated rills that have me imagining renversés. There is no grito accompanying the guitar, but two dancers seated with the two guitarists begin to play castanets and then a jaleo begins that carries with it a gentle sagacity before accelerating into rapid double-time clapping. A male dancer in a toreador jacket appears and begins his zapateo, showing full-body articulation. As the arms lift, the lights come up, and we see that the costume is gray. The work is deliberate, but far from sizzling.

I learn later from a member of the audience that she and her companion left at the intermission and noticed about thirty other people leaving as well. Too bad, because what came in the second half was so much better! In a discussion with the couple seated next to me, we talked about microphones. It seemed that the music was well-amplified, but that there were no microphones to pick up sound from the dancers shoes, or if there were, there were lots of dead spots, as we agreed that the shoes sounded like regular character shoes without the nails that make the flamenco heel such a powerful instrument, and key to the success of the performance.

Following the intermission, we saw what seemed like a completely different troupe. The head and eyes of the dancers—which seemed more absent than present in the first half—suddenly took their tasks more seriously. The shoes now sounded like flamenco shoes. While the voice of the cante soloist, Miguel Ortega, seemed to dominate initially, in the latter part of the second half, the dancers began to carry the program instead. Once that was accomplished, we saw some fine solo work by the featured male dancer in the troupe, Antonio Alcazar, and the lead female dancer, Victoria Palacios, whose solo in a red costume was one of the highlights of the evening. These dancers also performed a duet that showcased their technical skills, even if the simmer never reached a rolling boil. Toward the finish of the performance, Mr. Alcazar showed some footwork in a little etude that had him rocking to and fro on the sides of crossed feet, and then he broke out and executed a rather complex jig-like step that I have not seen before.

The house was on its feet at the end. Given the scale of the company (small) and the fact that the impetus for it seems to have come from the musicians rather than the dancers, it does offer a good, strong finish. I would have preferred to see it in a café setting, and wish that the first half were not so stingy with showing off the range of the company.


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