This past weekend, Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca extended its “Ramas de Olivo” (Spanish for olive branch). Yet the audience at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center hardly found peace in the flamenco artists’ performance. Rather, watching, Barrio and her band of dancers, guitars and singers was more akin to experiencing an exorcism. Like many flamenco artists, this group was expressing the heart and soul of flamenco, which was wrought from pain, loss and repression.
Barrio, in particular, personified the flamenco burn. The program opened with her in a spotlight, seat. Next to her was an empty chair. She stared at that chair and pulled the air around it toward her as if she were desperately missing and wanting to embrace the one who used to sit there. Then, when she stood, the full force of her grief rippled through her being in her rapid foot stomps and her staccato shifts in her shoulder. At that moment, she was the universal symbol of bereavement.
Of course, the guitarists Salva de Maria and Eugenio Iglesias with their wild strumming and singers Manuel Gago and Jose Jimenez with their wailing cries enhanced the atmosphere of anguish. And so it went for the majority of the evening. This was, after all, flamenco.
There was an unusual glimmer of cheer in this program, however. And that came from one dancer — Miguel Tellez. As he entered for his solo, “Alegrias” or joy, Tellez wore the serious demeanor of most flamenco artists. Donning a traditional costume, high-waisted pants with an embroidered short jacket and vest, this slim dancer looked like the flamenco archetype. But as he danced, he revealed a cheeky side, one that generated something one never hears in flamenco concerts — laughter. He relished it — toying with his zapateados, shuffling, sliding and swinging his hips too, to the audience’s delight. Occasionally, he flashed a smile that was irresistible as well, providing a bright spot in this otherwise distressing display.
The great thing about this company, directed by Barrio’s husband, Martin Santangelo, is it employs highly individual artists. As the program was made up of mostly solos, each artist steered the piece’s temperament to match his or her mood. Alejandro Granados’ solo was decidedly confrontational. In “Siguiriya,” Granados hovered over the singers and guitarists, as if absorbing their sorrow, before he let loose his feral footwork. With his head whipping up and down, back and forth, his feet shuddered as if he were being strangled. Granados, it appeared, was in a fight for his life. He won and the audience roared and shouted “Olé.”
In addition, the guitarists and singers with Noche Flamenca were extraordinary. Iglesias’ guitar solo was heart-felt and beautiful, while Gago and Jimenez’s mournful singing ripped through the chest.
But flamenco, for the non-Spaniard, is an acquired taste. You have to want to look in the face of despair to gain appreciation. Those who are game would gain much from Noche Flamenca.