The spotlight falls on the female stars of flamenco at Sadler’s Wells’ annual festival this year – and who better to open proceedings than the highly acclaimed Cadiz dancer Sara Baras. Her latest show, Sombras (“Shadows”), marks the 20th year of her company, and I have never seen her dance better than she did on the Wells stage on opening night.
Baras, following in the footsteps of Carmen Amaya, has famously made the farruca her signature style; its high drama and rapid gunshot taconeo are normally the preserve of male dancers. Farruca is the shadow of the title, something that shapes all her work and never leaves her. Baras, as always, absorbed the maleness of the style without seeming masculine – even as, dressed in red frockcoat and black trousers, she slammed into the ground, marked time with a tapping that had the swelling intensity of water dripping, then summoned a palpable energy to glide across the floor as her heels hammered in perfect rhythm.
She kept that martial fierceness when in a flowing dress too, whose skirts rose and billowed and which she used like a cape with a toreador’s sweep – or when swathed in fringing and whirling a red shawl around her. And it was enchanting to see her clearly thinking how to use the rhythm in her improvised sections, prowling with a look of intent on her face, pausing to admire her musicians’ extended solos on clay udu drum, or tambourine, then letting the music inhabit her. Her singers (Rubio de Pruna and Israel Fernandez) were clearly equally inspiring, and Diego Villegas’s bursts of blues harmonica and soprano sax were innovative additions to the flamenco soundscape.
The shadowy theme allowed for some lovely play in the lighting. Smoky darkness let dancers and musicians slip in and out of sight. They appeared as silhouettes, under dappled light that gave a sensation of being under water, and beneath filaments of light from five spotlights, which caught the female dancers’ swirling white skirts, flickering on them like fireflies.
Baras’s two male dancers seemed positively subdued compared with Baras and her four bailaoras, who dominated the stage as they worked through a variety of palos, from martinete to alegrias. A sense of assured control reigned – Baras’s improvisations were not outpourings of emotion, but concentrated bursts of pure skill, passionately channelled. And her final ferocious firework display – spinning and stamping into a near ecstatic state – was breathtaking. Her full standing ovation was fully earned.