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March 15, 2004 | by  | in Theatre |
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Ballet Nacional De España

New Zealand International Arts Festival
Westpac St James Theatre
27 February – 2 March

The opening night of the Spanish National Ballet was also the opening night of the New Zealand International Arts Festival. And the last weekend before classes started: Courtenay Place was seething with festival fogies and first-years, and all of them were slightly soggy. The sight of dripping expanses of Trelise Cooper frocks and Glassons mini wear, respectively, was a little too much, so the warm confines of the Jimmy were more of a haven than ever. A crowded house, a wild night outside, and classy company: this was going to be good.
Andalusia, southern Spain, is closer to Morocco than Madrid, and there is a distinctly middle-Eastern flavour to flamenco, thought to originate there. The curtain rose on chicos grouped behind a lone cantante with a voice as rough as sambuca and as deceptively powerful as sangria, raised in an unaccompanied lament. The light was so subtle as to just gild the shoulders and arms of the group, a clever device to really make the audience concentrate. This member of the audience was, in fact, caught already – totally spellbound within a matter of seconds.

The performance was split into four; the first half divided into three short pieces and the second a longer performance of Medea. Grito, the first presentation, was a showpiece for the main different aspects of flamenco: Seguirillas, Soleá, Alegrías and Tangos. Opening as described, the lights came up to reveal los chicos in all their flamenco regalia, backed by singers and guitarists downstage. The dancers, in the form of zapateado, provided percussion, the double-speed foot-work that flamenco is most well-known for – it’s easy to see why the corps travels with three masseurs! The beat was soon supplemented by las chicas, in skirts that fell to the floor, which gave the impression that they were gliding – until you realized that they, too, performed the zapateodo. The rhythm and intensity built at a smooth curve – a feature of all the dances – to near frantic pace without ever once losing the absolute control and unity inherent to flamenco. Astonishing.

The programme informed me that ‘…an entire flamenco dance can be danced in a space no larger than a table top,’ and in the next set, the stage was lit with three areas about that size in which Mariano Bernal, Christian Lozano and Jesús Córdoba performed. This was intense – the dancers working so hard that sweat was flying from them as they executed turns. The spatial limitations didn’t restrain these performances at all: they grandstanded, one-upped each other, and made what I can only describe as ‘European’ arm gestures at the audience in a bravura display.

Oscar Jiménez performed Entreverao (Farruca) solo in the next performance: 12 minutes of “elegant and austere flamenco,” with a phenomenal percussive feel.

Mujeres (women), an all-female, prize-winning modern piece, saw costumes move away from the traditional ruffles into liquiescent gowns, screen-printed to emphasise breasts, belly and the small of the back, echoing the guitars that left the stage for this performance. Flamenco’s middle-Eastern heritage was evident here, as dancers used the hip swaying and arm and hand movements that one would expect in a belly dance. Their use of castanets in a venue with acoustics like the Jimmy was gorgeous; a surround-sound, gossipy chattering that belied the elegance of their movements.

My notes for Medea, the hour-long post-interval act, read: “Oh. My. God.” I thought that the RNZ’s production of Romeo and Juliet last year was harrowing, but compared to España’s Medea, it might as well have been the Nutcracker. When Jason (of Argonauts fame) rejects Medea and their two children for King Creonte’s daughter, her jealousy cuts a violent swathe through the wedding party. Maribel Gallardo’s Medea was defiant, triumphant, sexy and disturbing, and will stay with this reviewer for a long time.

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