Not Your Mother's Flamenco

The New José Greco Dance Company

by Marene Gustin Gone are the tall combsand mantillas, huge ruffles and castanets. Percussion and bass guitar join the traditional guitar and singer in providing the rhythm. The José Greco Spanish Dance Company is back in town, but the traditional revue of flamenco, Spanish folk dance, and escuela bolero (classical dance) that it has presented annually in Austin since 1992 has given way to something new and contemporary.

"Its format is not just number after number: Change the lights, here comes another number, change the lights, here comes another number. The solos flow into one another," says the company's founder and guiding light for more than four decades, José Greco, Sr. "With all my 60 years in the business, I have never been as excited as with this show." And deservedly so. The opening number signals the audience immediately that this show is something more, something new, something to be excited about. It is a Siguiriya, one of the oldest and most important forms of cante jondo, or deep song. But the surrealistic lighting and modern choreography - the company comes together in striking poses in the semi-dark, bursts forth into rapid-fire footwork in the lights, then melts back into the shadows - is both provocative and existential. If Bob Fosse had choreographed flamenco, it would have looked like this.

This is the flamenco of today, the dance as a living art form, influenced by pop cul-ture, modern dress, and crossover aspects from varied dance forms. As Greco, Sr., says, "This is not the flamenco of 30, 40 years ago." And it is a credit to him that he is producing this modern-day dance extravaganza. As a man whose name has been synonymous with Spanish dance in America from the 1950s on, it would be easy for him to rest on his fame. At the height of his career, when he was doing Broadway, films, and world tours, "I didn't have to dance. I would just come out onstage and raise my arms and they would applaud. `Wait,' I would say, `I haven't done anything yet!'" But in addition to being an accomplished dancer and choreographer, Greco is a master showman, and he knows that artistic and commercial successes are not stagnant. So, he has put together a new company and even stepped aside to make way for a new artistic director.

At the creative helm now is Antonio del Castillo, a native of Madrid, whose background includes not only flamenco but ballet, jazz, lighting design, and Kabuki. And there is evidence of his studies with Alvin Ailey and Maestro Saikyo in his choreography, from the outstretched arms and splayed fingers of the dancers in the opening numbers to the expressive facial contortions used throughout the performance. The company's first production under his direction is titled El Duende del Flamenco, which refers to the "black sounds, a mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains," as Spain's great writer Federico García Lorca refers to duende. Or, as del Castillo himself says, "You feel the animal, and the animal is the truth. To put that over the stage is the true life."

For the new production, del Castillo has assembled a new company, and it appears stronger than the ensembles of past shows the Greco company has presented here. All the dancers have impeccable compas, the rhythm that is so essential to this dance form, and they accompany themselves with palmas and pitos, hand clapping and finger snapping, to keep the beat going. Of special note are the young flamenco singer Leonardo Treviño and the Moscow-born, flamenco guitarist Igor "El Russo." In the role of principal male dancer, del Castillo takes over for the company's former star, José Greco II, and while comparisons between the two are impossible not to make, Greco, Sr., is accurate when he says, "They are like two different dishes." Where the younger Greco dazzled audiences with his matinee-idol looks and machine-gun zapateados (footwork), del Castillo captivates them with earthier and more mature performance work. Of the other men in the new company, both are stronger dancers than the males who have been here before, and they show themselves to advantage in their solos. Miguel Cañas particularly has sharp and clear heel technique in Galeras, a solo that sets the audience on fire. Of the women, Abi Caro does a passionate Taranto in the dramatic style of Maria Benitez, and again Pilar Serrano steals the stage. In this show, she emerges from the wings at the end of Caro's solo, and as the two eye each other like competing felines, Serrano takes command of the stage with a flick of her fan.

Even though Serrano choreographs her own numbers, the influence of del Castillo is evident in the more contemporary costumes, dramatic lighting, and staging she utilizes. And these things suit this star well, allowing her to express more of her coquettish charm. She has a charisma that reaches out to the audience and engages them, both with her playful theatricality and her amazingly strong footwork. Even in the Solea, performed in the traditional bata de cola - those dresses with huge, ruffled trains - her movements seem more modern. She particularly likes the additional music, the bass and percussion beat the singer creates on a wooden box. "It is more fun today," she says. "I can play with the rhythm more." And play with it she does, to the delight of the crowd. Although Serrano has been with the company since 1986, she continues to grow into the now well-deserved role of star. And for the duets, she has found a very suitable partner in del Castillo.

Modern this show may be, but it is still a flamenco production, and that means it closes with a bulerias, the popular gypsy dance form that lends itself to improvisation. With a 12-count beat and meter in triple time, it is one of the most intricate flamenco rhythms for the guitarists, but it is also one of the most lively for the performers, making it a huge crowd-pleaser. In del Castillo's version, the company is in modern-day gypsy attire, and everyone is clapping, calling, and dancing. The number brings the audience to its feet, which leads to a carefully choreographed encore that has the dancers performing while seated in chairs.

There is duende to spare in this production, in the individual strengths and personalities of the dancers create a bond with the audience that is hard to let go of when the lights finally go out. Even for the non-dance crowd, this is a theatrical experience not to be missed. As the great flamenco dancer La Argentina said, "There are many the world over who dance well, but those who walk best are the Spaniards." In a company containing Spaniards, an American, a Russian, and a South African - a company produced by an Italian-born, Bronx-reared man who has grown into an impresario of Spanish dance - it must be believed that Spain is not just a country but a state of mind. n The José Greco Spanish Dance Company appears through July 8 at Capitol City Playhouse.

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