Sometimes a period of absence — or abstinence — from a particular dance form can result in the acquisition of new perspective, allowing one to view a performance with fresh eyes and ears. Other than short pieces performed at various festivals and as part of fundraising galas around the city, I had not been to a dedicated evening of flamenco in a few years. Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company’s performance of “Escencia Flamenca”, at Harbourfront Centre’s Premiere Dance Theatre from November 16th through 19th, proved to be a joyous reunion, reminding me just how incredible and infectious good flamenco can be.
Enrique — a constant presence on the Toronto flamenco scene since 1982 — produced an evening of finely wrought pieces intended to capture the “essence of flamenco”. At the form’s core, Enrique tells us, is the collaboration of guitarist, singer and dancer, united to evoke the distinctive sounds and rhythms of Andalusia, the birthplace of the form. To illustrate her point, Enrique chose to open her show with a work for five dancers choreographed to Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz’s haunting “Leyenda”.
Originally scored for piano in G minor, “Leyenda” was transcribed for guitar by Francisco Tárrega. This most famous fifth movement in Albéniz’s "Suite Española" (Op. 47) with its delicate, intricate melody and abrupt dynamic changes, has made it a staple in new flamenco repertoire. Enrique’s dancers glided expertly through the work, showing off sculptured arms, elongated torsos and expansive upper bodywork.
Though well known for the high quality musicians with whom she chooses to work, Enrique and musical director and long-time collaborator Nicolás Hernández outdid themselves with the addition of guest guitarist Jose Luis Valle (“Chuscales”) and guest vocalist and percussionist Francisco Javier Orozco (“YiYi”). In caló, the language of the Spanish Rom, “chusco” means the crunchy end of the bread, hence the nickname Chuscales refers to a person who is a “guitar-cruncher”. Hailing from a family of professional musicians and dancers and schooled by internationally recognized Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, Chuscales’ clarity and command both masterfully complemented the dancers and roused fellow musicians.
Born to an Andalusian family in Barcelona, vocalist and percussionist YiYi played the dark horse at the start of the program, his slight frame and reticent demeanour providing a contrast to the more ebullient guitarists at his side. Before long, however, it became clear that in accompanying the solo dances and performing sections of pure music, his skills were exemplary. With only a splash cymbal, oversized conga and a cajón (Spanish for “crate”, ”drawer” or “box”) a kind of resonant box drum played by slapping, his powerful, bone-chilling voice and incredibly fast hands riveted the audience. At times YiYi seemed almost embarrassed by the audience’s enthusiastic response, yet his playing and singing were nothing short of electrifying.
Equal to Enrique’s choice of musicians was her selection of guest dancer Ramón Martinez. Not since I attended the Festival Flamenco Internacional de Albuquerque in 1999 and saw the incomparable Alejandro Granados perform have I seen a male flamenco dancer of such raw talent and virtuosity. Though younger and more flamboyant than Granados, Martinez channelled equal levels of self-possession and machismo, leading the musicians in a merry dance that had the audience on their feet before the intermission.
Last in Toronto as a soloist with Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company in February, Martinez strutted about the stage, working the crowd and the musicians with his lightning fast taconeo (heelwork) and bravado. With his weight well back over his heels and his chest thrust forward, Martinez kept the rhythmic dialogue between him and the musicians on a thin edge, testing the limits of his speed and their chops. Part trickster and part suave don juan, Martinez let his audience in on his con, demonstrating both his consummate skill and comedic wit. Towards the end of his solo, Martinez drew out violinist Vasyl Popadiuk who followed the dancer’s antics, producing sounds like a slide whistle on his violin. Unfortunately Martinez proved less savvy when paired with either Enrique in their duet or with the ensemble in the closing number. (Interestingly both pieces were choreographed by Martinez).
Of all of Enrique’s dancers, the young and versatile Ilse Gudiño deserves special mention. Haughty and beautiful, her clean lines, elegant brazeo (armwork) and floreo (handwork) pursed lips and frowning expression were captivating. Though less fierce in her attack than fellow dancers Ángela del Sol and Renata Palmo, Gudiño’s interpretation and subtle variations were peerless in ensemble sections.
Costumes by Mary Janeiro and Jane Townsend were surprising in their palette — rich watermelon pinks and brilliant greens, earthy browns and navy blues — but extremely flattering and feminine in their silhouettes. Combined with Sharon DiGenova’s bold lighting design, the swirl of the costumes washed the stage with colour and shadow — though at times it was clouded over with dry ice.
Through her choice of collaborators, choreography and presentation, Enrique ably demonstrated her gift for flamenco puro. Though occasionally sentimental, the performance avoided the melodrama characteristic of many modern flamenco works in favour of crisp, unadulterated movement and staging. Enrique herself, in her solo Inquietudes, was all smooth edges and poise, giving the audience glimpses of her power in intense bursts of zapateado (footwork) and serpentine pirouettes, before deftly tightening the reins. The program as a whole was of an exceptionally high quality, and left the audience buzzing — proving without a doubt that Enrique and her company are still very much at the top of their game.
Thank you Bridget for your insight and comments about our show. Regards,