Flamenco Festival

Rubén Olmo
Ballet Nacional de España
Sadler's Wells

De lo Flamenco Credit: Javier Fergo
De lo Flamenco Credit: Ana Palma
Invocacion Bolera Credit: Jess Robisco

One of Spain’s top dance companies, Ballet Nacional de España (BNE), unveils the elaborate riches of Spain’s choreographic heritage in a florid evening of emotional musicality with clicking heels and clacking castanets, wearing its passion on the sleeves of its elegant costumes.

Artistic Director Rubén Olmo choreographs three pieces distilling the essence of Bolero based on traditional Andalusian folk dances from the 18th century courts, characteristically using castanets to mark out its structure of form and movement. Tonight, we see the art form merge with ballet, flamenco and contemporary dance in an expressive waterfall of rhythm and emotion.

There's De lo Flamenco, a tribute to the legendary dancer and choreographer Mario Maya, Jauleña, performed by a different soloist from the company each night and brightly coloured Invocación Bolera. There is also Antonio Najarro’s Eterna Iberia embracing all the beautifully expressive hallmarks of Spanish dance: castanets, the Spanish Cape and the Cordobes Hat.

For Invocación Bolera, Sevillian composer Manuel Busto’s filmic score builds an atmospheric cross between West Side Story and a scene lifted from a baroque court. The evening opens with an almost full cast onstage, draped in deep carmine brocades with puffed sleeves and velvet jackets. As dancers stand in a line looking out to the audience emerging from a pool of darkness, ruby reds and gold threading glinting, it’s a nostalgic revival of painterly figures from an ancient, ritualistic court. Then, alongside the castanets (I had to check it was actually the dancers clicking their castanets with such accuracy, not a recording), the dancers are wearing ballet shoes, waving and swaying their bodies in near-masonic fervour, interspersed with familiar ballet steps from jetés to pirouettes. The energic outpouring is exciting to watch, if a little difficult to follow its thread.

Next is a solo contemporary work, Jauleña, choreographed by Olmo and danced by Inmaculada Salomón (and José Manuel Benítez for two performances). Created as a tribute to the singular merging of Christian, Jewish and Arabic cultures reflecting Andalusia's rich history, it features Salomón under a single white spotlight, highlighting some beautiful passages of flowing movement from hyperextensions, rippling backs, flowing arms veering into sharp, clean lines and angular shapes in a nod to Merce Cunningham. The black and white backdrop behind her only serves to take us out of a baroque den and into a more contemporary frame. The powerfully nostalgic music builds emotion, and it’s fascinating to watch the change from hard lines to soft with a shake of an arm or twist of back.

After such streamlined singularity, Eterna Iberia, created by Antonio Najarro, then fills the stage with dancers, and the mood is 20th-century theatricalised flamenco. The hammering footwork beats out in unison, while the cast vacillate between elegant lines and circles, castanets clipping and soloists breaking out of formation to show off peacock style, an incredible technical prowess.

In the second half, the performance is greatly enhanced by a line of musicians bringing drama and fiesta atmosphere to the movement. There are five flamenco singers, three guitarists and a percussionist as a backdrop to the dancing. De lo flamenco is a sweeping mass of colour and form where the women spend much of the choreography lifting their voluminous skirts and swirling them about as if to seduce the men, or perhaps just to enjoy a sense of freedom as those costumes must be heavy.

There are some gem-like moments where men finally have a chance to shine, freed of a classical repertoire where they spend part of the time propping up their female counterpart. Here, the toreador pieces screech out testosterone-fuelled postulating and primping while being admired by clusters of women situated to the side of the stage, dressed up like fruit bowls and with colourful shawls.

The silence before a torrent of clattering and tap dancing builds the drama as Olmo effortlessly creates a flow between picture-perfect formations, synchronicity and impressive soloists stealing the limelight.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi

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