Review: Sara Baras in The Best of Sara Baras at Royal Albert Hall

Performance: 12 & 13 March 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 15 March 2010

Sara Baras, 12-13 March, Royal Albert Hall

Reviewed 12 March 2010

Sara Baras is now in the twelfth year of touring the world with her elite flamenco troupe and to celebrate she has distilled some of the best moments from her previous nine shows into Essencia – translated into the *_Best of’* for this British audience. Frankly, the notion of there being a “_best of Sara Baras” is a contradiction in terms since everything she does meets the most exacting of standards and as she appears to give all of herself into every performance, I can’t see how it is conceivable to select a few elements of her work and declare them to be “the best”. So, the original Spanish title is much more appropriate since this show can do no more than give an essence of one of the world’s great artists.

What a pity it is therefore that the British leg of this tour should give the impression of being hastily fitted into the cavernous and distinctly unsuitable auditorium of the Royal Albert Hall. Frankly, the show and – more specifically – its magnificent star were not well served by a venue that was showcasing the subtle intricacies of this great flamenco ensemble from so far away that I might as well have been watching real stars in a planetarium without a telescope. Added to this, the music was so deeply amplified to fill the venue that the intimacy of its gypsy soul – especially in the moments of sorrowful quejío (lament) in the songs – was completely overpowered by these booming sound levels; and the lighting cues, particularly in the early ensemble numbers, were either uncoordinated with the performers or bathed them in coloured lighting tones such that the detailed precision of the movement was often blurred.

However, the fact that the Hall was less than a quarter-full did not prevent a tremendous atmosphere, stirred by a knowledgeable and duly appreciative audience who gave frequent recognition to the duende (the life force of flamenco) through their outbursts of approval and encouragement (jaleo).

By my count, there were no less than eleven of the flamenco forms and their various adaptations in the programme, including two outstanding a_llegrías_, perhaps the best-known dynamic and joyful form of 12-beat flamenco; one – from the show Sabores proudly performed by Baras’ guest co-star, José Serrano and the other – from Cadiz la Isla – as a scintillating show-stopping finale by Baras herself. Her complex intricate taconeo(footwork) in the zapateados – the rhythmic combination of toe-heel-flat steps which so often characterises the popular shorthand for flamenco -propelling her across the stage in fluctuating speeds with infinitesimal lift (as if her feet are on unseen rollers) together with her fast, undulating diagonal body spins have such a graceful, imperious, eloquent athleticism that one has to be aware of the gargantuan power of this woman’s artistry. Everything is part of the whole performance, including her Manton, an elaborately embroidered shawl that is twirled and folded as part of the dance and a sexy, backless, sleeveless red dress that is tied up and undone to add particular accents to the dance form. There is no danger of the dancer being undone by the clothing designer’s opulence since Baras herself is responsible for the costume and stage design (as well as direction, choreography and lighting!).

Other flamenco forms ranged from a mix of Fandango and Sevillana (largely rotational-type dances for couples); another merger of the more solemn and woeful Seguirilla and Solea (from Baras’ show Juana la Loca); the boisterous, double-fast improvisations of the Bulería; the comparatively newer 12-beat form of the Martinete; plus – for variety – the four-beat styles of the Tangos (taken from Carmen) and its derivative the Tanguillo (also from Juana la Loca). It is never going to be possible to see the whole range of flamenco forms in a single show but Baras does her best to put together an eclectic and meaningful historic flow of the art in these bite-sized chunks of her work to date.

Flamenco dancers improve with age and Baras, not yet 40, has the potential of many more years with which to perfect her artistry. She is already approaching legendary status as a global ambassador for this purest form of Spanish culture. The pride and the passion of her performance is as fiery as the finest of blood-red rubies and even though this wonderful gem has had much better settings in which to shine, not even the vast chasm of this auditorium, with Baras and her ensemble marooned on a small stage at one end, could take any lustre away from one of the finest dance performers it has been my privilege to see.

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