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Ballet and flamenco -- plus lots of flash

From Madrid, Nuevo Ballet Espanol ratchets up the glamour quotient in its loose mixing of traditions.

April 24, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Whether you label its style ballet seasoned with flamenco or flamenco seasoned with ballet, Nuevo Ballet Espanol offers a highly accessible entertainment combining (if never really fusing) the two arts.

Spanish dance can be infinitely deeper and more powerful than this -- but company stars and co-directors Angel Rojas and Carlos Rodriguez are masters at fashioning slick personality showpieces that link some of the flashiest ballet turns to occasional flurries of flamenco heel work and a whole lot of glamorous posing.

Performing straight at the audience, Broadway style, their 10-year-old, Madrid-based ensemble came to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday with a program called "Flamenco Directo" that deliberately bypassed many of the hallmarks of traditional flamenco.

Gone were the familiar musical structures or forms that condition flamenco dancing. Company guitarist Gaspar Rodriguez composed, in their place, five pieces extraordinarily fluid in mood and rhythm.

Gone too were the usual elaborately sustained displays of intricate percussive virtuosity from the dancers. Yes, a few -- very few -- passages did exploit this kind of flamenco technique for more than a few seconds at a time, but although the stage floor was reportedly miked, foot rhythms were hard to hear.

It also seemed no accident that the onstage musicians suddenly became over-amplified whenever a dancer attempted a particularly fast or complex flurry of flamenco steps. Sonic camouflage, you might call it.

The 90-minute program began with a declaration of novelty. Eight dancers, men and women, appeared in black T-shirts and pants -- shoeless. Nothing especially creative occurred during this barefoot introduction (unless you find finger cymbals a revolutionary alternative to castanets). But the rudiments of Nuevo Ballet's aesthetic quickly became unmistakable.

As choreographers, Rojas and Rodriguez are gadflies, working best at bridging idioms, not exploring any one in particular. There's no evident reason why some sections of their pieces feature audible flamenco footwork and others don't -- it's all an expression of impulse. And if you're the kind of ticketholder who squeals when male dancers remove their suit jackets, you're not about to question their strategies.

Others, however, might tire of all the stretchy, I'm-so-sensual, photo-op freezes. Or all the artless transitions between up-from-the-floor classical pirouettes and down-into-the-floor flamenco steps.

In any case, Rojas and Rodriguez each delivered extended solos proving their dance prowess to be nearly as overwhelming as their need for the spotlight. The former sported an edgy, explosive attack -- not always under perfect control -- the latter more elegance and technical security. Their duet found them dancing with no real interest in one another -- not as friends, collaborators or even competitors. Curious.

Among the other soloists, Esther Esteban excelled in the twisty undulations of a duet with Rodriguez, and Ivan Martin danced with disarming lightness, though he ended his big solo off balance. Maria Lopez, Cristina de Vega and Ricardo Lopez danced in duets that demonstrated talent and versatility.

Guitarists Daniel Jurado and Gaspar Rodriguez managed to unify accompaniments to the most disjointed dances with great tact and suavity. Although Maria del Mar Fernandez's gutsiest vocalism came during the unamplified encores, the singing of Emilio Florido provided dramatic weight throughout the program.

The arrangements made artful use of Nicasio Moreno's cello expertise and atmospheric flute interludes by Elisa de la Torre. An uneventful drum solo featured Diego Alvarez "El Negro."

Lighting designer Gloria Montesinos kept everyone bathed in a golden glow, and costume designer Paloma Gomez favored creams and browns once the dancers changed out of those T-shirts.

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