If you’re a dedicated dancegoer, you’re likely seeking more than just skill when returning to the theater night after night. You’re hoping to find that rare treasure: a dancer who makes your pulse race and your eyes widen – a dancer who tests the limits of human potential and reminds you that the art form has the power to mystify, illuminate, inspire and even frighten.
The flamenco dancer, Soledad Barrio, is one such artist. Since 2011, I have seen her perform three times in New York, most recently on Tuesday at the Joyce Theater, where her company, the Madrid-based Noche Flamenca, has a two-week season. Pinpointing exactly what it is that makes her such an extraordinary stage figure becomes no easier with time. Is it her musicality or her immaculate upper-body carriage? Or her electric intensity, the magnitude of which becomes clearer once the performance ends and she humbly takes her bows? Her brilliance manifests itself in these qualities and many others, and flamenco – a highly-mannered dance form – looks entirely organic whenever she takes the stage.
Martín Santangelo, Barrio’s husband and the company’s artistic director and primary choreographer, is a savvy curator, always teasing the audience with glimpses of Barrio in early ensemble numbers before she returns at the very end with a solo tour de force. No one ducks out of a Noche Flamenca concert early.
Barrio’s solo on this program, the eponymously titled Soledad (Spanish for “loneliness” or “solitude”), was a heart-wrenching meditation on grief. She begins slowly, curling her wrists and letting the motion ripple down through her arms. The musicians, seated in chairs, cheer her on, and soon she explodes into action in spurts, whipping her body in circles and throwing her legs to the side. When standing still she occasionally seems intentionally hesitant – unwilling to probe her emotions or share them with with the audience – and this withholding makes the solo more exciting. Changes in posture have startling effects: Arching her spine backward, she is proud and strong; leaning forward, she shows vulnerability. She briefly brings to mind Martha Graham’s iconic solo Lamentation as she squats in a spotlight at center stage and tugs mournfully at the fabric of her purple dress.
The first of two male soloists to join Barrio on the program was Alejandro Granados, a charmingly-disheveled dancer who takes flamenco steps to almost absurd extremes. At the company’s Joyce season last year, his strut-heavy solo El Patuka was often downright comical. His dance this year, titled Encuentro, was more somber. Granados pulls at his lapels and rattles his feet suggesting waves of pain, and he repeatedly reaches upward and toward the audience desperately, as though he needs something to hold onto. The ending is simple and poetic: Granados walks softly in circles as the lights fade to black. Has he finally gone mad?
Juan Ogalla (replacing Miguel Tellez, who withdrew because of an injury) showed a less-anguished side of flamenco in the brio-filled Alegrias. The solo hits a peak when he steps to the front of the stage, allowing for a better view of his complicated footwork. The audience cheered Ogalla enthusiastically, and his joy is contagious, but I wish the contrasts – soft against loud, big against small – had been more pronounced.
Only one part of the program went slightly astray. Quebradas, a piece for the entire company, began promisingly with a duet for Barrio and Granados, who faced off along a diagonal, dramatically stepping and kicking in symmetry. The tension between them is thrilling – almost palpable – but they depart quickly, leaving the stage to four women who stalk around each other hostilely only to end in intimate embraces. Here the choreography is too mysterious: there appears to be a story, but it – and the connection between the duet and the group dance – remain unclear.
The good on the program, however, far outweighs the bad, and watching paint dry for an hour would be worth your time if it meant being able to watch one of Barrio’s solos. The last few minutes of Soledad alone are worth the trip to the Joyce. If you’ve seen Barrio before, you know how it all will finish – a series of devilish turns capped by a dramatic pose – but it doesn’t matter. Barrio makes every moment look improvised. You watch, you wait, and you hold your breath.