Belen Maya Company
London, Sadler’s Wells
9 March 2014
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
also discussed: Juan Martin Flamenco Dance Ensemble in Concert at Artsdepot. www.flamencovision.com
The London Flamenco Festival has, thus far, taken a fascinating tour of the flamenco world. Sadler’s Wells has already hosted full-on flamenco dance theatre imbued with Spanish history and Andalusian pride (in La Pepa by Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras); an old-fashioned flamenco gig headlined by the singer and the song (Miguel Poveda in concert); and a dance-inspired symbolic and intensely personal journey through flamenco styles by Àngel Muñoz in Angel. From White to Black. For the Festival’s fourth entry – and for one Monday night only – dance again took centre-stage with Belén Maya and her guest Manuel Liñan giving a contemporary take on a traditional flamenco show in Trasmín.
Meanwhile, in an interlude from Islington’s dance house two days earlier, I had ventured off-piste into a one-off flamenco fringe to take in the London leg of a nationwide tour by the Juan Martín Flamenco Dance Ensemble at North Finchley’s ascetic venue, The Artsdepot. Martin is an influential flamenco guitarist living and regularly touring here in the UK, perhaps best known popularly for his single Love Theme from The Thorn Birds, which was a top 10 hit in the UK exactly 30 years’ ago. The charts were good then: in the week that Martín had his one-and-only top 10 entry, he sat behind Relax (Frankie Goes to Hollywood), Queen’s Radio Ga Ga, Cindi Lauper professing that Girls just wanna have fun and Madonna on Holiday. All this in one week and every one of them still instantly hummable after the passing of three decades! Even the lyrical theme in Martín’s lonely No 10 from that week of keepers is still lodged firmly in the little grey cells (although that may have something more to do with The Thorn Birds’ star, the heavenly and unforgettable Rachel Ward).
And back to flamenco! The point of this is to note that, in the space of a week, the ingredients of the traditional “black box” flamenco stage have been mixed in very different measures with song, dance and guitar each taking the headline slot. In North Finchley it was Martín’s guitar that led the line while in Sadler’s Wells a similar, simple stage setting had the two dancers firmly at the centre of the show.
Belén Maya is from flamenco royalty, the daughter of two great artists, Carmen Mora and the gypsy king of dance, Mario Maya (both Belén and her father appear in Carlos Saura’s notable 1995 film, Flamenco). 20 years’ on and she remains an exceptional dancer, even if just a couple of birthdays away from her half-century, accentuating the classicism of flamenco with a distinctly modern flavour, but one that is never allowed to overpower the essential aesthetic of tradition. The speed and agility in her complete control of the fast rhythms of the Bulería al golpe towards the end of the show were mightily impressive as also in the closing Martinete where Maya performed alongside the two male singers expounding a passionate and heartfelt lament about a man’s incarceration in gaol (the Martinete is a style of song that emerged from the blacksmith singing in his forge, a fact that had been very helpfully explained by Martín during his concert).
If Maya is a consummate performer who manages to be both elegant and ebullient in equal measure, then her guest, Manuel Liñán, is easily the crème-de-la-crème of the male dancers seen thus far during this fortnight’s abundance of flamenco talent. We first encounter him standing behind Maya in the opening Cantiña (a style that encompasses several types of flamenco rhythm, including the popular Alegría, and which – although fast-paced – has many less beats per minute than the Bulería). It looks as if he is wearing trousers that match the pale green of her ruched and long-trained dress but when eventually they move apart, their tilted body shapes with outstretched arm reaching out into pointed index fingers are an exact mirror image, to include the fact that Liñán is also wearing a similar skirt!
Their subsequent duet continues in this extraordinary reflective synchronisation with the two performers a perfect match in all respects, a fact perhaps helped by Liñán’s early exposure to flamenco being influenced by the coaching of Maya’s late father. Manuel’s own solos dominate the middle of the programme with the Soleá (a generic flamenco term originating in the nineteenth century that derives from the Spanish word for solitude, another helpful explanation from the stage in the North Finchley show by Juan Martín) and an unusual Rondeña, essentially based on a fandango originating from Malaga (there is a town called Ronda in that province of Andalucía). The strict 3/4 time signature of the fandango is much more loosely interpreted in the Rondeña, which enables Liñán to let rip with a robust and methodical technique contrasting his steely upper body frame with chattering, quicksilver feet. This Granada-born bailaor is already choreographing his own shows and I confidently expect him to be a headline act in future UK flamenco festivals.
The Trasmín programme is punctuated with three solo de cantes for the vocalists, each of whom double up to help with the beats through their handclapping (palmas), led by the deep anguish of the Cádiz cantaor, José Anillo, who interchanged very smoothly in duets with David Carpio (notably in the aforementioned Martinete where they both sang directly to Maya), supplemented by the strikingly melancholic voice of Gema Caballero. The ensemble was ably supported by two guitarists, Victor Márquez (known as ‘El Tomate’) and Rafael Rodríguez (and how I’d love to say that his nickname is ‘El Aguacate’*)!
The Sadler’s Wells show brought a certain array of colour onto the traditional black stage with its dark-suited vocalists and musicians through a constant flow of costume changes for Maya and Liñán, including a comical return to his long dress for a welcome encore at the show’s end. This visual aspect was sadly lacking up north at The Artsdepot, where the feel was much more casual, almost as if we were observing an onstage rehearsal with the only changes of note being Martín swapping guitars.
This show was essentially a showcase for Martín’s exceptional guitar skills, which are not flashy (he actively disassociates himself from the modern trend amongst flamenco guitarists for pyrotechnics in their number of notes-per-minute) but instead he produces extraordinary, rich tones of exceptional clarity. The dozen or so numbers in this concert included several guitar solos beginning with a beautiful fandango to open the first act, which was concluded by a nostalgic rumba and a gorgeous contemporary piece entitled Evocacion** set up the mood again, after the interval. Martín has around 20 CDs in the market-place, including one entitled Picasso Portraits, an album released by Polydor that dates back to his youth and reflects the rather auspicious fact that he was selected to perform at the artist’s 90th birthday party in 1971.
Martín’s flamenco ensemble is tightly-knit with a single female singer (Amparo Heredia) and two dancers (Raquel de Luna and Miguel Infante) but they managed to convey a wholesome account of traditional flamenco (all but the castanets) with a joyful Alegría, the expressive lament of the Seguiriya and finishing up appropriately with a furiously fast Bulería. The ensemble proves that flamenco skills can be enriched by vintage: Martín is in his mid-60s and arrives on stage almost apologetically, urbanely dressed in a grey suit with the so-Spanish male embellishment of a thin red scarf; his collaborators are also each of a certain age and the dancers are surprisingly chunky. Nonetheless, although their effort shows in great patches of perspiration, they are remarkably nimble and tempestuously light-footed. Infante’s rapidly trembling feet created a shimmering effect that was transfixing and he was a caricature of Mediterranean machismo, including grabbing the clichéd opportunity to use Heredia’s shawl as a matador’s cape. His posturing was sometimes a little too much for a British sensibility but it added to the overall, earthy feel of this being an impromptu flamenco happening in a downtown bar in Cádiz. The only problem in this respect was that the theatrical space – and lack of evocative lighting – didn’t help to provide the right environment.
Martín’s ensemble has packaged the flamenco tradition into a touring experience that is clearly tailored for the British public. His guitar pieces float happily away from mainstream flamenco; he includes that rare flamenco treat of an interval; his show finishes on time; and his regular explanations (in perfect English) to introduce each item were helpful, especially for a largely non-expert audience. His ensemble left North Finchley and headed off for one-night-only gigs in Milton Keynes, Bristol, Nottingham, Tewkesbury, Bury St Edmunds, York, Hexham and the wonderful little theatre by the lake in Keswick***. If the Sadler’s Wells Festival has passed you by, then this is package-deal flamenco designed for a UK audience that is well worth seeing (just so long as one’s expectations of flamenco are not all about vibrant colour and castanets).
(*) ‘The Avocado’
(**) there was no programme for the Juan Martín show and so all references are from memory
(***) Tour dates for the Juan Martín Flamenco Dance Ensemble are available from www.flamencovision.com/concerts/