Review: Flamenco Festival London 2016 - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 25 - 28 February 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 4 March 2016

Esperanza Fernández & guests – 'De lo Jondo y Verdadero'. Photo Bettina Strenske

Gala Bienal de Sevilla (25 February)
Marco Flores & Olga Pericet – Paso a Dos (27 February)
Esperanza Fernández & guests – De lo Jondo y Verdadero (28 February)

The final lap of this year’s Flamenco Festival London at Sadler’s Wells was a rousing sprint finish. Four separate shows occupied the final four nights giving a closing flourish that emphasised and enhanced the surprising and wonderful diversity of the art of flamenco.

This electrifying end game began with a gala. There is always a gala. But, this one was something very special and specific. In alternate years, Sevilla hosts La Bienal de Flamenco de Sevilla, a festival of gargantuan size and significance, hosting 80 shows over four weeks of intense activity. The best artists are awarded a prize known as the Giraldillo. And, it is the cream of the crop from the latest festival, in 2014, which comprised this Gala Bienal de Sevilla.

The Giraldillo for Best Show went to Sevilla’s home team of Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía, a company that appeared in their own full-length shows at Sadler’s Wells in 2013 and 2015. Their gala ensemble featured dances for men and women, the two small groups seamlessly joined together in their early interaction, interweaved around a mantón (shawl). The company’s tall, slender bailaor solista (soloist), Hugo López, danced a brief but splendid farruca within this upbeat, celebratory opening to the Gala.

Although there is always a showy, artistic, almost ceremonial formality about flamenco baile (dance), there is also often a refreshing lack of protocol about a flamenco show. The concept of a “fourth wall” segregating an audience from the performers is routinely disregarded. Everyone is enveloped within the holistic theatrical intimacy that reduces the grandeur of even the largest auditoria. Such informality helps to overcome the kind of distractions that might unduly impact on any other kind of show. Thus, when Manuel Valencia, the virtuoso guitarist and winner of the Revelation Giraldillo (effectively the “best newcomer” award), comes to the front of stage, curtains drawn behind him, to demonstrate the originality he brings to traditional toque (flamenco guitar), the noises of people moving behind the curtain, with chairs being scraped along the floor, somehow added to the atmosphere of the performance. Now in his early 30s, Valencia performed two complex and lyrical solo pieces, demonstrating fluid dexterity in his finger work and absolute clarity in the crisp tonality of his music. There are moments when he makes you doubt that so much simultaneous sound can come from one instrument.

From relative newcomer – Valencia has yet to release his first solo CD – we turned to the other end of the spectrum with the winner of the Giraldillo for Renowned Artist, which went to the veteran cantaor (singer), El Lebrijano (Juan Peña), now aged 74. He seemed ill-at-ease with the sound system, frequently making signals off-stage to technicians and carrying on a steady stream of banter with both the audience and his accompanists. El Lebrijano, so-called because he was born in the Sevillian city of Lebrija, retains a surprisingly powerful voice, which has no doubt matured in its emotional intensity over the years. Unsurprisingly, he was the performer that induced the greatest occurrence of jaleo, the cat calls of admiration and reverence from the audience, which is part of the flamenco tradition (London audiences are generally much quieter that in Andalucía but the presence of the clearly revered El Lebrijano certainly made up for that usual reticence).

Following El Lebrijano was a tough ask for any other cantaor but this responsibility fell upon the voice of Antonio Reyes, a latecomer to fame, ‘discovered’ as recently as 2014 – at the age of 39, after a lifetime of singing – when he won the Giraldillo for flamenco singing. Reyes delivered three songs, amply demonstrating his significant vocal range, clarity, deep sentiment and integrity. And then, finally, the gala focused upon the gypsy flair of Farruquito – winner of the dance Giraldillo – who reiterated the extraordinary tempo and discipline of his fiery zapateado (footwork), which had been shown in his own full-length show, just two days’ previously.

It then fell to Farruquito to orchestrate the encore, which brought all performers back to the stage. Much of Farruquito’s art is built upon an improvised response to the music and his feel for the duende (spirit) of flamenco but it seemed clear that the Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía dancers prefer a choreographed structure as they appeared ill-at-ease with the flambouyant, extempore ending. They became a kind of reluctant cuerpo de baile for Farruquito and co.

I missed the Compañía Olga Pericet performance on the following evening but caught the company’s eponymous star in her Paso a Dos show with Marco Flores the next night. Pericet is a compact, dynamic dancer who is renowned for her modernisation of flamenco but she is also a great dancer in the pure flamenco style. There are satisfying references to the fiesta, folk style of Sevillana dance in her varied repertoire, both in her performance and style.

Her self-designed costumes are gorgeous. The Sevillana reference is clear in the Traje Gitanas (colourful, swirling polka dot dresses) and Pericet was the first woman dancer in the festival to dance in a bata de cola; the traditional long dress with a ruffled train that becomes a part of the dancer’s performance, flicked over with the foot and gathered up by hand. This elegant red, sequined dress was the catwalk star of the whole festival. Pericet was also the first dancer to use castanets, although the over-amplification of the music mostly drowned out the rhythmic sound of her clicking.

Flores and Pericet are long-time collaborators, an affinity that shows in the security, fluidity and synchronicity of their partnership. It is as rare to see a lift in flamenco as it is to see an elevator in a bungalow but Flores and Pericet performed exciting duets that included lifts and rotations with Pericet swung around by her partner in mid-air. One duet ended romantically with a clinch and a kiss (again, not a usual sight in flamenco). They have choreographed an exhilarating mix of flamenco and partnered dancing, which brings yet another dimension to this unique art form. An excellent group of musicians and singers supported the star duo, amongst whom the outstanding toque of El Tomate was especially notable.

The final show brought cante (song) to the fore and in a festival of so many great shows; this was certainly a contender for the best of the best. Esperanza Fernández is a cantaora equivalent of Farruquito, a legendary performer sizzling with gypsy fire and flair. Her Junoesque body was enveloped in a trademark voluptuous white, Grecian-style dress and she sings with a sensual, earthy and extraordinary passion. Her show is entitled De lo Jondo y Verdadero (“The profound and truthful”) and comprises several songs across the various flamenco forms and time signatures, which Fernández has researched from the past and rescued from nonentity.

Her opening and closing songs were accompanied by the elegant dancing of Ana Morales, the leading bailaora solista of the Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía; the first of which was a petenera, an old and relatively unusual 12-beat palo, danced in a beautiful white bata de cola; and the second, a bulería – another 12-beat rhythm – danced in tight, high-waisted leather trousers. Although Morales is currently a soloist in a large ensemble, she is a superb dancer with the stagecraft and charisma to headline her own shows.

Completing a trio of beautiful women was the guest cantaora, Marina Heredia, who sang with Fernández on three songs, emerging from the wings to sundry cries of guapa (pretty) from the audience. Her vocal diversity, especially in the low range was exceptional and the mix of contrast and harmony in her duets with Fernández was arresting. The cante (song) was broken up by an excellent guitar solo from the show’s musical director, Miguel Ángel Cortés.

And so, the 2016 Flamenco Festival ended on a whole series of high notes. It had begun with Sara Baras “in memoriam” show for deceased legends of flamenco, evenly spread through the key disciplines of cante, baile and toque; remembering two giants of flamenco in each of these arts. The rest of the Festival continued this even-handed focus on the remarkable diversity of flamenco. I caught six of the seven shows on the main stage of Sadler’s Wells and loved the whole intoxicating experience without reservation.

Flamenco Festival London
Sadler’s Wells, 16 – 28 February 2016

Photos: Esperanza Fernández & guests – De lo Jondo y Verdadero by Bettina Strenske



Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for Londondance.com, Dancetabs.com and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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