After a flamenco festival that has shown how the artform can be packaged in so many ways and still retain all its essential elements, Manuel Liñán brought London back to tradition in this outstanding Gala Flamenca, featuring some of flamenco’s fast-emerging stars.
As the gala’s artistic director, Liñán – a ground-breaking bailaor in his own right – brought together four great talents (three dancers and a singer), backed up by an outstanding group of musicians, for a stunning combination of six dance-led episodes, each one built around the multifarious talents of these lead performers, both individually and in combination.
The opening Alegría, a fast-paced flamenco form, usually performed at more than two beats per second, was danced superbly by María Moreno – a bailaora new to me, but one I hope to see again and again! It came as no surprise to discover that she has won two of the biggest awards for new artists; at the 2017 Festival Flamenco de Jerez and the much-coveted Giradillo at the Bienal de Flamenco de Sevilla. Her joyful Alegría was well-disciplined both in terms of structure and performance with Moreno totally in command of every element, not least in her explosive zapateado. Wearing a gorgeous bata de cola, Moreno’s expertise with the mantón (large fringed shawl) was a study in perfection (Liñán is himself a superb exponent of dancing with the mantón), requiring incredible dexterity as she curled the shawl into patterns in the air and around her body, manipulating this large fabric with the combined skills of juggler, matador, rhythmic gymnast and dancer.
Mercedes Ruiz is a much more familiar bailaora, a multiple award-winning dancer who has visited the London flamenco festival before, a status recognised by the distinction of her Soleá closing the gala; having earlier danced a fascinating conversation with the excellent guest singer, Mariá Terremoto, truly a pas de deux of song and dance. Not to be outdone by Moreno’s skill with the mantón, Ruiz gave her own masterclass with a flamenco accessory, by integrating the castanets with her dancing. Not only was the marriage of finger-clicking percussion with that of her feet an extraordinary combination of harmonies, but the fact that she danced with the castanets silently within both hands for some time before using them demonstrated remarkable control. The dancing of Ruiz has a raw, earthy and sultry quality, with seductive flavours of Spain exuding from every posture and shape created by this outstanding performer. Where Liñán is capable of conjuring aspects of the Bailaora in his performance, so Ruiz makes the opposite gender-crossing journey, dancing in the high-waisted, flat-fronted trousers, traditionally worn by men, as part of an all-black outfit, embellished only with some gemstone sparkle along the centre edges of her short jacket and blouse.
Male dancers have been much less evident than the females in this flamenco festival, the main shows being dominated by Sara Baras, Rocío Molina, Olga Pericet and Patricia Guerrero. But it has been a privilege to see two of the new wave of bailaores, firstly in the residency of Jesús Carmona and, here in this gala, through the passionate theatricality of Eduardo Guerrero. He danced a caña for the show’s centrepiece, emphasising both the dramatic tension in the dance and the mercurial lightning-fast movement of his feet, pulling out his jacket to the side before ostentatiously removing and flinging it into the wings. He danced himself into exhaustion and yet still had the energy to return for the penultimate section in a duet with Moreno.
This has been an outstanding flamenco festival, not just at Sadler’s Wells and certainly not solely about dance. Moving the festival from February to July has placed it into a more apposite season, where the heat of Andalucía and Madrid can at least be approximated in an English summer, and the extension to a fringe festival alongside the main events has been a great bonus. Just prior to the Gala Flamenca, I was privileged to see and hear Antonio Lizana and his superb band at the Cervantes Theatre, in Southwark. Lizana is a songwriter, vocalist – a soft and mellifluous flamenco singer – and a saxophonist and his band’s integration of flamenco and jazz has created a wonderful, unique hybrid style. Many congratulations to Miguel Marín and his team for opening our eyes to much of the immense range in the art of flamenco. I hope to see the festival expand even further in years to come.