Her long, dark hair pulled back severely, Sara Baras moves sinuously to the gentle rhythms of two guitars, a revealing red dress swirling around her. Having dispensed with traditional flamenco's cumbersome ruffled skirt, ornate hair combs and enormous flowered shawl, the 34-year-old dancer expresses age-old passions with an exhilarating freedom. A spotlight follows her as she curves her hands in graceful arabesques, while the singers accompanying her raise their voices in plaintive cries.
Baras conveys joy and sadness just as eloquently as the great flamenco dancers of the past, but she is something new -- a combination of artistic innovator and media celebrity who has helped take the form to a broader level of mass appeal. Last year, she broke box office records for a flamenco show, with a five-month run here in the Spanish capital.
Her glamour and beauty haven't hurt, either. Already Spain's most popular flamenco dancer, she won a huge new audience as the moderator of a 1998 TV talk show devoted to flamenco. She has modeled for designers Amaya Arzuaga and Francis Montesinos, come up with her own sexy underwear collection and been featured in a Cartier catalog. Her face has even appeared on a stamp. Few flamenco dancers have become such a star.
But unlike many in her field, Baras saves her theatricality for the stage. She conducts her life like a smart businesswoman, not a diva. It is another secret of her success.
"I want as many people to love flamenco as possible," she says in her dressing room, having changed into jeans and a sweater, her pretty face washed clean of makeup. "No one should go away from a flamenco performance without having been moved."
Los Angeles audiences will have the opportunity to test those assertions Wednesday and Thursday when she and her eight-member company (plus guest artist Jose Serrano) make their West Coast debut at Royce Hall with the evening-length suite of dances "Suenos" (Dreams). On Feb. 15, they will perform it at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara.
A life of dance
Baras learned to dance from the artists who surrounded her as a child in her native Andalusia, the coastal region of southern Spain that is the heart of flamenco. Her mother ran a flamenco school in the Atlantic seaport of Cadiz, where the young Baras began studying at age 8. But "there was never a time when I didn't dance," she says. "It was a part of my everyday life. I loved the costumes and music and would practice my hand gestures over and over again so they would really say something, just like my mother's."
At 16, she joined Manuel Morao's acclaimed company. As her reputation and skills increased, she went on to dance with such stars as El Guido and Antonio Canales, and in her early 20s, she performed at the prestigious Granada Festival with the great singer Enrique Morente. But she saw poor flamenco too, the product of a refusal to collaborate and a resistance to change.
"It is embarrassing," she says, "how so many artists refuse to change their routines. Even the word 'routine' says how bad it can be. You have to keep exploring your emotions in order to do flamenco well. It takes an awful lot out of you. But you have to do it. People come to see flamenco for the artistry, but what they want even more is catharsis, like what you experience hearing well-sung blues or gospel. And for there to be catharsis, the production should be well designed and directed."
When she founded Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras in 1997, Baras vowed not to be routine. She has employed stage directors, lighting and costume designers, and musical directors for all her shows.
"Everyone has his role and his job," she says. "If I dance, it does not mean that I should be a director or I can arrange the music. I know choreography. That is enough. For everything else, I need the wisdom and perspective of other professionals."
While unremarkable in the U.S., that concept was indeed long foreign to flamenco performers in Spain, with the result that shows were often static, repetitive and predictable. Yet Baras is also part of a long line of artists who have moved flamenco forward and expanded its appeal. Their efforts started as far back as the 1920s, when Carmen Amaya challenged sexual stereotypes by donning pants and dancing with the power and technique of a man. In 1974, Antonio Gades introduced flamenco into another performing art by adapting Federico Garcia Lorca's play "Blood Wedding" as a one-act dance drama. Carlos Saura's films in the early '80s, including one based on the Gades production and another a version of "Carmen," further increased the audience for the form. Saura's 1995 "Flamenco," an art-house hit the world over, gave prime exposure to virtually every top artist performing then.