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The feeling of flamenco: Flamenco Viva’s Carlota Santana.

Taking the Bull
by the Horns

By Mae G. Banner

Flamenco Vivo, Mano a Mano (The Bullfighter’s Ballet)
The Egg, Nov. 15

Like the bullfighter, the flamenco dancer surrenders completely to the moment. The proud stance, arched back, and swiveling turns of the torero or the dancer serve to efface all sense of self. There is only pure rhythm—pure power.

In Mano a Mano, a knife-edged narrative ballet on the life of the legendary Manolete, the intensity of the bullfighter merges with the soul of flamenco. The two forms flow together like molten metal in this elemental dance performed Saturday (Nov. 15) at the Egg by Carlota Santana’s nine-member Flamenco Vivo.

The bullfighter’s story is the perfect vehicle for Santana’s project, which is to recast traditional flamenco dancing, infusing it with strains of modern dance, pan-Latin vernacular, and jazz. Moreover, she intends her “flamenco nuevo” dances to tell a story in contrast to “flamenco puro,” in which the dance itself is the only story.

Principal dancer Antonio Hidalgo choreographed Mano a Mano and dances the role of Manolete, the Cordoban hero who enraptured audiences in his brief, stellar career. On the cusp of his retirement at age 31, Manolete accepted a challenge from the brash young torero, Luis Miguel Dominguin. He killed his bull cleanly, but died in the ring at the moment of truth.

With the aid of minimal voice-over narration by Samuel Hazo (who sounds like Leonard Nimoy) and the onstage music of guitarists Calvin Hazen and Fermin Querol, singer Jose Salinas, and flutist Terence Butler, the dancers enact Manolete’s story in a series of exciting scenes that mirror the passes of a bullfight.

Each scene is an encounter between friends, lovers, or combatants. Each is danced with skill, daring, sensuality, and breathtaking control. A storm of heel-work, contrapuntal clapping, corruscating singing, swirling capes or shawls, and shouts of “ole!” keep the excitement at an almost unbearable level. We see climax after climax and we remain on the edge of our seats, watching for the next dramatic turn.

Flamenco, originally a solo form that expresses deep personal emotion, here serves to illuminate a range of relationships. In an early scene, Hidalgo as the young Manolete learns by repeating the moves of his mentor, Jose Flores Camara. Rodrigo Alonso dances the mentor’s role with delight in his pupil’s growing skill. A simple hand on Hidalgo’s shoulder conveys his pride and their brotherhood.

Pilar Andujar, striking in red, dances Antonita Branchalo, Manolete’s lover and wife, with seething intensity. Her hips swivel beyond flamenco’s boundaries to the edge of vulgarity, but this is countered by her arms, which slice the air like scimitars. In a brilliant solo, she stalks the stage, elongates her arched back, and whips around in passes like those of the bullfighter.

In a climactic duet, Andujar and Hidalgo face each other, arms lifted and curved, articulated fingers representing the bull’s horns. Face to face or back to back, they move together like quicksilver, circling each other into darkness, then reappearing under purple strokes of light for a bit of afterplay, a climax beyond the climax.

Santana, who co-founded Flamenco Vivo in 1983, appears as Manolete’s mother, plying her black-fringed shawl with masterful efficiency. She dances in silence, slowly and deliberately, her back to the audience, facing her fellow dancers as if to show them how it’s done.

One hanging light with a green shade evokes the men’s tavern where Dominguin, danced by the smoldering Fermin Calvo de Mora, makes his challenge to Manolete. The challenger seems to glide back and forth, inches above the floor, yet his heels beat all the while. It’s a stunning move.

Tension builds from this scene to the next, as the two toreros and their seconds prepare for the bullfight. While the bullfighters don their beaded boleros, four women in black perform deep wide-legged plies, already in mourning.

The toreros step forward, flourishing their brilliant satin capes. The challenger dances with flair, the gold tassels on his epaulets quivering. Manolete, in contrast, begins in silence. He swivels one foot, testing the ground, turns, poses, then steps into a spin. He drapes his red cape over his sword, then lifts and lowers it slowly, maddeningly, drawing the bull to him. In one motion, he kills and is killed.

Flamenco puro has no rival for depth of feeling. But Mano a Mano focuses the ferocity of the tradition in a new, highly theatrical direction that beckons audiences to follow.

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