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Dance: Flamenco, Simple and Smashing

3 minute read
Gerald Clarke

The drum is a percussion instrument of surprising subtlety. But so is the heel, not to mention the toe and the palm of the hand. All are on display at ; Broadway’s Mark Hellinger Theater, where Flamenco Puro opened last week and — like its sister show, last year’s Tango Argentino — astonished as much as it entertained.

Flamenco, which includes the singing and guitar music as well as the dance of Andalusian Gypsies, has a language all its own, so simple that it seems to bypass the brain and speak directly to the heart. In the words of the playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, it “knows death, knows blood, knows love.” And that awful but powerful knowledge is what this revue seeks to convey. As its title indicates, it presents the real, raw stuff, without nightclub flourish or Jose Greco’s acrobatic flamboyance.

There are no sets, and the production opens, a bit unpromisingly, on what seems to be a family gathering: 20 men and women standing in a semicircle on a bare stage. But, after the first number, one of the men begins to sing. Imagine a bagpipe full of gravel wailing into a nor’easter, and you have some idea of his doleful song and the others that punctuate the evening. “Ay! Ay! Let your bowels be torn from your body because you don’t know how to love,” goes one typical lyric.

For American audiences, such forlorn music is easier to appreciate than enjoy. But they cannot help being excited by the dancing, which expresses, in spontaneous but disciplined and concentrated movement, the passions of the Gypsy soul. Eduardo Serrano crosses the stage with the lacy delicacy of a tightrope walker before erupting in a virile drumbeat, a machine gun, of toe tapping. Manuela Carrasco draws all eyes with an ethereal hauteur that is only accentuated by the jackhammer snap of her commanding heels and the swirl of her long ruffled gown. Some are known chiefly by their nicknames, which, according to Gypsy custom, are short and pungent: El Chocolate, for example, or El Biencasao (the Well-Married).

To find such a strong cast, the Argentine impresarios Hector Orezzoli and Claudio Segovia searched southern Spain, the home of flamenco, for the best performers, rather than for glamorous people who could be taught the steps. The result, as in the Tango revue, is a largely middle-age troupe that, by show-biz logic, should cause audiences to snooze in their seats. But nobody snores during this evening, and those superannuated singers and dancers are exhilarating and, yes, sexy.

Even in Spain, true flamenco appeals mostly to aficionados, and although Flamenco Puro was a success in both Seville and Paris, Orezzoli is nervous about its future in America. “This show must attract a public that is still not formed,” he says. “When you hear tango, it can awake something that is familiar. It is urban folklore. But flamenco puts you in a different world. People who expect castanets might be disappointed.” If first-week audiences are any indication, however, they will not be, and word of mouth is already causing a toe-tapping, heel-stamping queue at the box office.

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