Ballet Nacional de España
Grito and Suite Sevilla
London, Sadler’s Wells
26 February 2015
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
Flamenco in the hands of Ballet Nacional de España is far from the rough and ready peña experience: Antonio Najarro’s Madrid-based company offers instead precision-tooled dance, worked into choreography that shows careful appreciation of the stage space. The company looks beyond flamenco, working in classically-influenced ‘escuela bolera’ and folkloric steps. For this showcase, one of the closing productions of Sadler’s Well’s Flamenco Festival, it presents 1997’s Grito (Spanish for Cry) and 2011’s Suite Sevilla – an evening most definitely of two halves.
Grito begins with a cantaor surrounded by men with hands held out in humble respect for a passionate burst of flamenco cante. Ten men and ten women form the corps, the latter decked out in gorgeous body-con dresses in shades of green, purple and red – think Azzedine Alaia does Seville (in fact costume design is by Pedro Moreno).
Three guitars, drums, flute, and two singers provide the musical accompaniment to a series of dances: soloists Eduardo Martínez, José Manuel Benítez and Álvaro Marbán show off scything legs and immaculate precision in a piece where they move in their own boxes of light; the massed ranks of women throw evocative shadows against the backdrop; the closing group piece fills the theatre with a heady sense of feria as the dancers work sevillana elements into their steps. It may lack the thrill of barely contained emotion that flamenco so often evokes, but it’s a rousing demonstration of how its formalities can contain real beauty.
But when they come to push the boundaries of the form in Najarro’s Suite Sevilla something comes unstuck. Instead of innovation, there’s an oddly clichéd feel to tranches of this nine-part work, and part way through you start to feel distinctly weary.
An opening flourish of the dancers lined up at the front of the stage, low to the ground and working with just castanets and sinuous arms, is intriguing. The Calle de Infierno solo, with a barefoot dancer performing intricate ‘escuela bolera’ with castanets and shawl, is fresh and lively. But the unsettling, Semana Santa-referencing La Alfalfa and the Maestranza duet – like a deconstructed paso doble in which a toreador is beguiled by a bull-woman in full-body leotard – don’t reach beyond the obviousness of their Andalucian references.
There’s a wafty interlude with a woman in white flitting among black-clad men, and the rather misguided Paseo de Ensueño, which tries to create a lushly romantic duet using flamenco (thereby immediately losing the dance’s fiery male-female frictions) and peaks with the couple rolling indecorously on the floor.
The delights are more to be found in the moments when the stage is flooded with BNdE’s drilled dancers, the women flirtatiously wielding bata de cola and fan, the men restlessly thundering out flamenco’s furious footwork. But there’s rather a lot in need of pruning around these pleasures.