Review: Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company - Patrias - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 12 - 16 July 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 14 July 2016

Paco Peña 'Patrias'. Photo: Andy Phillipson

Performance reviewed: 12 July

An earlier iteration of this show featured in the Edinburgh International Festival of 2014 and, much more recently, in the Andalusian city of Córdoba (Paco Peña’s birthplace). Nonetheless, this opening night at Sadler’s Wells had the exciting feel of a major premiere of a very personal event.

Patrias (an unusual plural version of the Spanish word for homeland) is an episodic reflection on the life and work of Federico Garciá Lorca; the artistic polymath, now regarded as the greatest Spanish writer of the last century, who was executed by a Franco death squad near Lorca’s home city of Granada, a month after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (in 1936).

Lorca wrote that being from Granada gave him ‘…a sympathetic understanding of those who are persecuted – of the Gypsy, the Negro, the Jew and of the Moor which all Granadinos carry inside them’. What he couldn’t say was that being a homosexual maximised that feeling of persecution (and may well have been at least partly the reason for his brutal demise). In any event, a profound sense of persecution lies within the spirit of flamenco, which is the first direct association between the art and subject of Patrias.

I did not know that Lorca was an accomplished musician before he gained acclaim as a poet and novelist (his work includes The House of Bernarda Alba and Blood Wedding, both of which were turned into expressionist ballets for the embryonic Royal Ballet). An accomplished pianist, guitarist and close friend of the composer, Manuel de Falla, Lorca recovered and documented many traditional folk songs, then sung in the villages of Andalusia, which have subsequently become part of the cultural history of flamenco. And (with de Falla), he instituted the first known competitive festival of cante jondo, the deep song that is hugely representative of flamenco’s soul. Although by no means the reason for the author’s everlasting fame, Lorca’s influence on flamenco was strong, thus providing the second profound relevance for a flamenco-based show on the events of his life and death.

This is a serious and beguiling work, uplifted by all the flamenco arts (guitar, song, dance and percussion) but also through pacey theatrical direction (step forward, Peña’s long-term artistic consultant, Jude Kelly) and the pathos in Kathy Hinde’s visual designs, most of which were extracted from the French documentary Mourir à Madrid (1963) by Frédéric Rossif.

Indistinct combatants are outlined in white, often falling to the ground (one assumes, mortally wounded). One scene starts off as if tracing the outline of Seattle’s skyline in the credits of Frazier and then packs a mighty punch to the solar plexus by morphing into a firing squad and its victim. In another moving sequence, the outlines of four apparently elderly men (one holding a walking stick) walk briskly across the screen – again and again- with their arms held up in the universal sign of surrender. We waited with fearful anticipation of the moment that they would be gunned down. It didn’t happen (well, at least, not there on screen, in 2016) but the uneasy feeling of “what if” aligned to events around the world today, gave this eighty-year-old film footage an unforgiving legacy.

Adding further poignancy to the emotional high were the words of Lorca (and his friends and contemporaries, such as the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda) spoken either by the charismatic, actor, Jorge de Juan – a man currently on a mission to establish the Spanish Theatre Company at a new Cervantes Theatre, in Southwark – or offstage in the recorded voiceover of Giulia Innocenti. Words ambiguously – and often illegibly (at least from the First Circle) – scrolled along the back screen. Spoken and written text swerved from English to Spanish and back and in one late sequence, de Juan spoke in Spanish against Innocenti’s English voiceover and all words were lost in the jumble.

In Patrias, Peña was himself never more than one of the ensemble. The lead guitar, perhaps, but ably supported by another Paco (Arriaga) and Rafael Montilla, the son of Peña’s long-time collaborator, El Chaparro. Vocal passion and musical dexterity flowed through the emotional, demonstrative singing of José Angel Carmona and Gema Jiménez. Percussion came through the handclapping (palmas) of Nacho López and the ensemble. Even the barefoot de Juan and Peña joined in to maintain tempo, as impromptu palmistas.

Two extraordinary dancers completed this outstanding group of ten. Astonishingly, it is 26 years since Angel Muñoz first joined Paco Peña’s Dance Company (did he join as a ten year-old?) and he seems to grow as an extraordinary dancer, notably so in the slow, adagio, elegant footwork (zapateado) of the Farruca. Mayte Bajo danced with a special grace and astonishing turns. Her contemporary style of flamenco emphasised sinuous movement in the upper body and arms with less staccato attack in the footwork. Her costume designs – by Peña’s daughter, Elvira, and Linda Rowell – had catwalk elegance on an ambivalent Spanish theme. There were no Sevillana dresses, no polka dots and no long, layered trains (bata de cola).

Patrias was front-ended by a brief, half-hour long Tribute to Lorca, which served as an introduction to the main part of this double bill (Patrias is a one-act work of around 75 minutes) and consisted of three musical numbers, each of which was utterly absorbing. First, there was a delicious guitar solo by Peña, appropriately entitled Recuerdo À Granada, with the veteran guitarist’s whole attention unwaveringly devoted to the strings on the neck of his guitar, which was raised at a diagonal in his unmistakeable style. Each dancer then performed a solo, accompanied by Peña; first, the disciplined accuracy and intense musicality of Muñoz’s fine Farruca; and then a flowing Rondeña by Bajo.

There may occasionally have been a little too much going on simultaneously, but holistic, purposeful, emotional dance theatre does not come much better nor more sentimental than this. Events of 80 years’ ago make us think of events today. Lorca’s statement, “I am totally Spanish…..but before that I am cosmopolitan, and a brother to all. I don’t believe in political frontiers” is highly relevant to today’s Brexit society, despite having been made a whole lifetime ago. Patrias is highly recommended!

Continues until Sat 16 July

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, 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

Photo: Andy Phillipson

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