After a hiatus of several years, the World Music Institute is back in the business of presenting flamenco. Its Festival Ay! Más Flamenco at Symphony Space – not to be confused with the Flamenco Festival, which starts next week at City Center – features four companies: La Otra Orilla, Joaquín Grilo, La Lupi, and the husband-and-wife duo Sonia Olla and Ismael Fernández.
Flamenco is a difficult category to put your finger on these days; there are about as many approaches as there are dancers. But Joaquín Grilo, the headliner on March 4, is fairly old-school. Born in Jerez de la Frontera in 1968, he is a veteran, with his own, highly personal style. His show is free-form – i.e. there’s no set list – and intimate, and completely bare-boned. It’s just Grilo, a guitarist (Juan Requena), and a singer (José Valencia) with minimal lighting effects or fuss. But oh, the amplification! At times, Valencia’s voice was deafening; at others it sounded like it was coming from a wooden box located somewhere offstage. The guitar was tinny; the taps sounded like pops. For a dance-form in which music and percussive counterpoint are central, this is a real problem.
The show is billed as a tribute to Paco de Lucía, the great guitarist with whom Grilo toured for many years, and who died in 2014. It began with a solo performed to a recording of de Lucía on the guitar. (Well, I assume it was de Lucía, even though nothing was specified on the program.) Grilo’s steps looked improvised, his dancing remarkably free and loose. Ripples traversed his body in jagged, syncopated waves. A shoulder shook; his loose hips wiggled; he slapped his chest and teetered off-balance, trilling with his feet. This was Grilo at his best, dancing around and against the music, living inside it, happily, dispensing with the ubiquitous flamenco scowl.
This unruly spirit returned, sporadically, through the evening. Grilo seems to be his happiest when dancing in close physical proximity to his musicians, egging them on with amused looks and gestures. They seemed to talk to each other, he with his feet, they with their clapping hands, voices and guitar chords. His ability to spin complex and opposing rhythms, even when jumping from foot to foot, is thrilling. He is an irrepressible trickster, trying on different characters: the stiff-legged old man, the drunkard, the toreador circling his prey, the impish roué. (He is not averse to the occasional bump and grind or slap on the backside.)
All of which is great fun. But what the evening lacked was momentum or intensity. Often, the energy flagged. For long stretches Grilo postured and fiddled around, snapping his fingers and lunging this way and that, until finally, an idea sprang to the surface, and then he was off. The costumes, too, were drab and often unflattering; in one number, his shirt kept riding up until, as discreetly as possible, he pulled it down again. It was, let’s say, a little too casual.