by Raewyn Whyte
Playing for one night only in the third week of the Tempo Festival, Tierra Flamenca’s Concert Chamber show was sold out well before they arrived in town. The flamenco audience in Auckland is very much an international one, and generally knowledgeable about the artform, both from viewing the regular international performers who visit here, and from their experience of flamenco in a number of different styles and settings, including performances in the tablaos of Spain. They are not uncritical, and can be a hard audience to win over.
Despite the unsympathetic setting — a bare stage raised above flat rows of unstaggered seating, with such terrible sightlines that many audience members chose to stand throughout at the sides and rear of the chamber. Yet even with technical problems with onstage sound, the passionate, energetic, intense and deeply sensual performance of the Tierra Flamenca ensemble very quickly had the audience responding with encouraging calls, applause, and drumming feet.
The ensemble of Gypsy-style flamenco puro performers from Jerez de la Frontera was assembled by expatriate New Zealand flamenco dancer Francine Sweet. They are mature perfomers, highly experienced and with international ciruit credits, and they form a highly responsive ensemble.
Manuel de la Malena and Ana de Los Reyes are powerful singers who are play a critical role, verbally goading and teasing and encouraging the dancers, setting the emotional environment with their vocals, clapping the rhythms to keep everyone up to the mark, or embellishing the rest with counterpoint and hocketing beats. In their deeply moving solos especially– Triruma dedicated to Ana’s children, and Del Corazon a la Boca (From the heart to the mouth) they left you wanting to hear much more.
Throughout the show, the necessary bed of rhythm was laid down securely and soundly by guitarist Jesus Alvarez and percussionist/palmero Jose Luis Bermudez Peña, providing a rich source for the delicious improvisational forays that featured throughout the dancing. Both are clearly masters of their respective instruments, Alvarez articulated the notes crisply and cleanly, strumming and plucking quietly or dramatically as needed, knocking on the body of the guitar, or playing at whichever end of the neck is required. In his solo Transportado, dedicated to a relative now living in Auckland, he showed off just a little, and there were some recognisably contemporary sequences of music exchanged between himself and Pena.
Dancers Jonatan Miro and Francine Sweet were well matched in their duets A la Calle Justica and Tempranillo. They are equally lithe and slim and supple and strong, each demonstrating the requisite rhythms in powerful drumming footwork, launching into intense stomping, punching, hair-whipping attacks on invisible enemies, prowling to and fro across the stage, or executing multiple spins on the spot. While the programme did not include the slower forms of flamenco, in their solos Alegrias de Somorrosto for Miro and Jere ‘Zelanda for Sweet, there were moments of respite, when the dancers would turn oh so slowly with elegantly winding hands slowly raising from hips to above the head, or take up a stance which accentuated the arch of the spine, or pause a little before launching into the next barrage of dound and action.
The dancers’ costumes were, of course a feature, with Miro’s ranging from the traditional high-waisted form-fitting black pants with ruffled shirt and silk vest to a sports jacket which swirled dramatically in his multiple off-centre spin turns, allowing glimpses of his torso between trousers and untucked shirt. Sweet’s form-fitting dresses were embellished with ruffles, with colourful top layers often lifted to expose a elaborately trimmed underskirt as much as to free the legs to move faster or take larger steps. Her costumes were always complementary to his in one detail or another, the polka-dots of her ruffles matching his polka dot cravat, or both wearing embroidered burgundy silk waistcoats.
It was a very satisfying show, stirring and exhilirating by turns, and multiple curtain calls were received before a short finale which saw each take to the floor in turn, poking fun at the more overtly sexualised aspects of the dance form, and quickly releasing the tension built up throughout the show from compliance with the rhythmic rigours of the form.