Flamenco chamber music, flamenco karate, flamenco as a solo or as part of a group, over the years I've learned from, enjoyed and been totally immersed in all of Rafaela Carrasco's performances that I've seen. Not as controversial as Israel Galván, her work has nonetheless pushed the boundaries of flamenco without ever losing its spirit or its deeply visceral feel. Her workshops (those I was lucky - and healthy - enough to attend) have shown her to be generous with her creativity and wonderfully patient, and the one social interaction I remember (years ago now) had me impressed with her grounded clear-headedness too. That's why I looked forward to seeing what she had achieved as Artistic Director of Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía in this piece; Images: 20 Years at, one of the shows to be brought to London as part of Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival 2015.
At the start seated dancers followed the same choreography at different times, blending together in much the same way as the childrens' songs that weave together beautiful harmonies when different people start the same simple verses at different times. Their arms and legs gave the impression of ticking clocks, of working at the blacksmith's anvil and other repetitive manual tasks. Away from their chairs, the same limbs, suddenly angular, blended sudden explosiveness with smoothly sinuous grace. One of the dancers (don't know who, I was too far away to see his face) danced with the manton (scarf) in a wonderfully masculine manner. Later, the back-screen projection showed a purple cloud approaching a huge full moon, transferring colour as it passed until the moon was coloured deep purple and the cloud became pure white. To me Carrasco's choreography was still divine.
The photocall boded well for the full performance, treating us to men dancing with the manton (one wearing huge hooped earrings), some with shoes that followed female styles along with what matters - gorgeously authentically idiosyncratic flamenco moves in precise patterning that bears out the 'ballet' part of the company's title. The huge white weighted material suspended at the back of stage left looked like a suspended bata de cola (long flamenco skirt); another hint as to what might be seen later. Caught in the drive to take the best photos I could (we're not given much time), I wasn't conscious of a lack of depth of feeling from the performers until we were discussing it after the shoot. I put it down to the dancers holding something back. During part of the photocall they weren't in costume either, helping me maintain the conviction that a deeper level of communication would manifest in the full show.
Admittedly my seat was 5 rows back in the first circle. I was unable to see faces so couldn't recognise the dancers and couldn't make out which of the two cantaors (singers) were singing. Admittedly too, my view was partially blocked by other peoples' heads and my concentration was broken by the occasional click of a camera (explicitly forbidden in English and Spanish at the beginning of the show). Being high up meant I did see the entirety of a projection of dancing feet on the stage floor while those in the stalls would not. They would have seen little more than Carrasco dance in the enormous white bata de cola that hung from stage left during the photocall and part of the performance itself.
Flamenco at its best communicates at both visceral and intellectual levels. Good flamenco holds me despite obstructions and irrespective of where I sit. It transports me or absorbs me totally. It leaves me conscious of little more than the dancers. They communicate feelings, patterns and messages through movement, rhythm and music. It's not that I'm not aware of the set, but it isn't something I'd comment on if the dancing keeps me pulled in. While I enjoyed it in part, that I paid attention to the back-screen at all (and I did, several times) means the dancers had lost me or that they failed to capture my attention at all.
A good fifth of the audience gave a standing ovation. That they found it absorbing is no surprise. I can see how those who come first from a knowledge of ballet and who are less familiar with the unique properties of flamenco would absolutely have enjoyed the show. It wasn't just me who thought that parts of it felt empty (I asked around afterwards). I suspect all those whose first love is flamenco did not.