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Glamorous whirlwind

A bravura performance by Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras of Spain brings new passion to a dance idiom breaking free of an inhibiting formality.

February 23, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

During the post-Franco era in Spain, flamenco has changed from a cherished traditional idiom belonging to a proud minority into something of a national obsession, with stratospheric levels of technical expertise matched by a restless attempt to free the idiom from the formal structures and expressive goals that used to define it.

Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras is one of the great success stories of this era, and the company gave the UCLA Live series a new sampling of its passionate flamboyance in Royce Hall on Wednesday.

Contemporary flamenco has brought lots of shirtless posing to local stages along with confused links to modern dance and classical ballet.

Not here: In nearly two hours of nonstop bravura, Baras and her stellar guests, Jose Serrano and Luis Ortega, isolated elements of authentic flamenco style and projected them on the largest possible scale, forging connections with the audience and reaping a series of ecstatic ovations.

Blowing kisses at the public long before the final curtain calls, Baras behaved like a celebrity but clearly knew that her fame came from delivering fabulously accomplished, reliably unpredictable dancing.

Her first extended solo featured elaborate gestural embellishment -- twisting, curling wrist and hand motions that she suddenly abandoned for whiplash turns that caused her costume to flare out in a circle behind her: Baras as the eye of a hurricane.

A solo near the end of the program dispensed with such niceties and instead found her punching the air, often with clenched fists, and creating a force field by detonating intricate, high-velocity accelerating/decelerating steps in one spot near the edge of the stage.

Her penchant for unexpected endings and exits inspired her guests to similarly take the audience by surprise.

Ortega ornamented his solo with castanets, establishing rhythms that he accented with powerful percussive footwork -- highlighting sharp contrasts in speed, direction and pressure -- but he sometimes abruptly opted for long passages of silence.

Serrano danced in bursts of energy: clapping his hands, slapping his chest, setting up a complex step-pattern and then aggressively busting free as if it had imprisoned him.

Like Baras, he performed what seemed a glamorous climax, his arms flung wide, but it proved to be a fake-out, and his real ending was just an unassuming walkaway.

These dancers never told stories, portrayed characters in crisis or made the audience come to them. One trio showed Ortega and Serrano nuzzling Baras' shoulders, embracing her and each other and interacting in a happy flamenco menage. Otherwise the emotion in the performance came from the dancers' connection to the music -- played live by an accomplished, tireless six-member ensemble -- and to their own prowess as validated by the audience. Call it showpiece dancing -- but never empty-headed (or -hearted), never circusy.

Besides providing unison hand-claps that supplemented the musicians' contribution, the Baras corps dancers excelled at one of the most difficult theatrical achievements: looking like individuals yet moving as one. Group excellence became most paramount, perhaps, in one piece for four couples plus a woman alone. It included plenty of traditional displays of ability -- passages of synchronous footwork, brief solos for the men -- plus a few Baras-style surprises, as when everyone got down on one knee to knock rhythmically on the floor.

Antonio Suarez's solo on a box-drum proved the sole instrumental interlude. Miguel de la Tolea and Saul Quiros served as alternating vocalists.

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