"Flamenco Puro" begins with the sound of galvanic hand-clapping and heel-work--and as the curtain of the Pantages Theatre rises, you see a circle of 21 dancers, musicians and singers opening out--a tight social unit making room for guests.
Three generations of Gypsy performers are represented and if the semicircle of high, slate-gray panels behind them looks forbidding, the intricate, feisty little solos of introduction convince you that these are people you want to see again and get to know.
Suddenly, everyone vanishes into the portals between those scenery panels, yielding the stage to Antonio Nunez, a singer (known as El Chocolate) with a gritty, harsh voice of overwhelming emotional power. His song represents the barest structure for feelings that are tearing him apart and its accompaniment--hammer blows on an off-stage anvil--supplies a weighty, pitiless rhythm.
If you never understood flamenco before, you do now: To these people, flamenco is an act of defiance against a world that has always abused and excluded them, a way of turning inward--and to one another--for an affirmation of their worth as human beings.
Thus the "Puro" of the title doesn't represent a claim to authenticity of style as much as a focus on the essential priorities of flamenco--"truth in a clenched fist." As in their "Tango Argentino," producers/directors/designers Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli have assembled performers in touch with a degraded art's deepest traditions and created a theatrical context that reveals and enhances the vision that the art was born to convey.
In "Flamenco Puro," they remind us of the social continuity that has nourished and preserved flamenco--and all gloriously ingrown ghetto art--by presenting whole families of performers. They make room for masters and for mavericks, for social protest and for secular shamanism, for moments of moody passivity and others of exultant earthiness.
Above all, they help the essential mystery of flamenco expression to ensnare us, and they refuse to explain it away as mere sexuality or showmanship.
In "Cana," for example, we see the four powerhouse company women--Manuela Carrasco, Rosario Montoya (La Farruquita), Pilar Montoya (La Faraona) and Angelita Vargas--painfully pulled together as if by some mighty force.
They writhe against it, hands curling overhead, bodies twisting, faces contorted, eyes unseeing--and they only seem to break the spell at the last moment as they plunge dangerously into an imploding circle, arms flung out.
As a statement of submission to the inevitable, this enigmatic ritual proves infinitely more potent than the dance-drama about jealousy ("Tarantos") that ends the program's first half. And it defines the women as monumental, totemistic figures. They are unforgettable.
The men never achieve that stature but they provide many a tour de force of their own. Eduardo Serrano (El Guito) may be the most predictably intense and virtuosic, but both Antonio Montoya (El Farruco) and Jose Cortes (El Biencasao) are masters of surprise: introducing positions, patterns and pauses you never expected.
Ultimately, though, flamenco itself looms larger than any individual in "Flamenco Puro" and larger than flamenco is a sense of the anguish of the Gypsy experience. Segovia and Orezzoli are wizards. Once again, they have created one of the indispensable experiences of the dance season by rehabilitating an art that has more to tell us than we ever knew.