Virtuoso flamenco at Sadlers Wells
Patricia Guerrero’s award-winning piece, Catedral was the last event in Saddlers Wells’ Flamenco festival. It represents ‘the professional and personal liberation that I have needed to be able to break the rules of flamenco and create my own language’, exploring the ‘interior, the physical and aesthetic parts of [my] art.’ (part of this quote is from Guerrero’s website: http://patricia-guerrero.es/en/shows/catedral-2016/)
The ballet took the form of a series of seamless vignettes: moving from a sombre, strained beginning to a crescendo in which Guerrero vibrated across stage, heels rapping with such speed that it seemed like she was gliding and a final, exultant, sensual dance.
The ballet began in disorientating darkness. In silence. Slowly percussion (Augustin Diassera and David Chupete) simmered, intermittent sounds building to clanging bells and hissing cymbals, creating a discordant, sonic Catedral. The stage illuminated. Barely: dim shafts of light beamed from ornate windows imagined high up above the stage. Guerrero and her chorus of three dancers (Maise Marquez, Ana Agraz and Laura Santamaria) emerged in dark medieval dresses with wide skirts and angular shoulders that echoed the architecture of the stage and sounds. Two doppelgangers (tenor Diego Perez and counter-tenor Daniel Perez) dressed as cardinals drifted onto the stage, their vibrant red costumes the only jarring point of colour. Their voices pierced in high harmonies, with words that sounded like a prayer, or an incantation. Perhaps a warning. It sounded like a song from hell.
This first movement was a sombre, strained dance, Guerrero and a trio of identically dressed dancers, their hair slicked back in severe ponytails. They looked like furies. The womens’ gestures were rigid and tense, at times even robotic, their costumes stiff and restraining, iterating limits placed upon them by the church, by the traditions of flamenco. Guerrero herself wore a mantilla and performed some of the dance from a chair, catching her arms, legs and even her whole body each time they tried to escape their confines. The dancers moved in a slow rhythm in repetitive steps that were at times hypnotic – there was a wonderful moment when the chorus paced across the stage, swaying forwards and backwards like a pendulum. The hot theatre and the dim lighting and the spellbinding music were soporific and I felt my head nodding, the spectacle pulling me under.
But I shifted, woke, sat up as the superb guitarist (Juan Requena) started to play, as Jose Angel Carmona began to sing. During this segment of Catedral, the dancers slipped their constraints – literally, in Guerrero’s case: her stiff dress dropped slowly from her arms to reveal a flowing dress of shining dark silk. The music changed – the percussionists joined by a guitarist and singer who accompanied the women as their movements and costumes became more fluid, swaying their hips raising their arms, clapping hands and snapping fingers in a balletic enunciation of freedom. The music and dancers stopped and started, a little like free-form jazz, confounding the expectations of a dance that flowed and continued, as if the dancers were pushing the boundaries of flamenco in different directions, testing its limits, though not quite yet able to break free.
The singer’s ululations and the guitar’s excitement built as the dancers surged into excitement, swaying their hips, raising their arms, their faces contorted in an expression of painful ecstasy. Blue light suffused the stage and the movements became more of a communication than an exploration. Each member of the dancing chorus took a solo turn, showing off her moves, the others clapping and snapping and stamping their heels: using the language of flamenco to exalt and praise. It reminded me of a hip-hop dance-off. The dance became defiant, expressing a do-not-mess-with-me womanly power. And Catedral really was a womanly dance: hips and ass and ankles, hands flicking dismissively or raised in defiance or in allure. Guerrero’s own turn in this most energetic part of Catedral was astonishing: every movement fiercely precise, her arms and hips twisting, defiant, her heels knocking an incessant rhythm that seemed intended to exorcise, to keep at bay all those who would try to contain her.
Catedral culminated in a virtuoso solo. Guerrero slid onto the stage a black silk shirt dress soon to be flicked open then shed to reveal a ruffled red lace gown beneath, releasing long, wild hair – every part of her body now expressing her own freedom. The choir-boy cardinals glided back onstage and sang their terrible harmonies, their song converging the melody of the guitar and singer –the sounds from the restrictive beginning of Catedral combined with its expressive centre, producing a wall of jarring sound. Guerrero’s movements in this final segment were less expressive, with fewer joyous, flamboyant gestures than in earlier movements: perhaps because this final movement saw Guerrero reconciling her own creativity with the tropes of traditional flamenco, having pushed against and experimented with its rigid requirements. Or perhaps suggesting that Guerrero was sufficiently confident to resist the confines of the church and dance herself into the woman she wanted to be.
Flamenco has a whole language of its own, comprising many rhythms, movements and music: a flamenco connoisseur might have more technical insights to offer into Catedral, might say that the choreography and music communicated so much more. Whatever the answer, Saddlers Wells was on its feet at the end of the performance, giving Guerrero and her company the standing ovation they so well deserved.