Downstairs at the Maj
His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth
reviewed by Jo Donnellan
Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), poet, playwright and musician, wrote:
All the Arts are capable of possessing duende, but naturally the field is
widest in music, in dance, and in spoken poetry, because they require
as interpreter a living body.
(Duende: the creative magic flowing from the very core of the soul).
Five musicians and four dancers brought their living interpretations to the intimate downstairs cabaret theatre of His Majesty’s in a programme reflecting on Lorca and his experiences in New York.
The programme interwove traditional songs of Spain, that Lorca collected and arranged for piano and voice, between dances and instrumental items. Thus the three rivers to which the title refers: music, dance and the spoken word, flowed through the evening.
With two exceptions, all dance offerings were of the introspective cante jondo, ‘deep song’ flamenco genre which was of great significance for Lorca. Choreographies by José Torres and Antonio Vargas were arranged by Deanna Blacher.
A sombre opening: four beautiful women in dark tailored trousers, bare-armed in waistcoats, smooth hair unadorned, seated on wooden chairs on a dimly-lit stage, clapping in bulerias rhythm to flamenco guitar and percussion accompaniment. With piano accompanying the mezzo-soprano in a love song Los Cuatro Muleros, the dancers rose one by one and began moving to the twelve-beat rhythm, building atmosphere by the peremptory tattoo of their feet on the resonant floor and by the supple weaving of their arms.
Torres’ Solea por bulerias followed. The name of the dance comes from the word soledad, translating approximately as solitude. Invented by a male, the quality of this dance was reflected in Ashanti Suriyam’s intense, almost aggressive, expression. Tension was created by the arms moving as though against the resistance of a weight of water. Danielle Ricercato’s exquisitely flared fingertips gave an aching quality to the filigrana, the delicate folding and unfolding of the fingers. Sofia Pradera’s expressive eyes conveyed a poignant mood.
Nola Formentin came into her own in two light-hearted songs, Las Tres Hojas and Las Morillas de Jaen. Her confident, disarming stage presence underpinned the dark timbre and clear top notes of her voice. Neville Cohn, every inch the storyteller with his cloud of white hair and confiding manner, explained the origins of the songs and paid tribute to Lorca’s pianistic and compositional skills. Cohn’s piano accompaniment supported the singer without dominating proceedings.
There followed a charmingly feminine rendition of Dos Muchachas, ‘two friends’. The classic tall blonde Ricercato, as Amparo, sat at her embroidery whilst the servant Lola, played by Karen Henderson, mimed the washing of linen. The two danced together, separated by wealth and class but united in their longing for ‘love in the orange grove’; the whole evoking a rustic, wistful, sensuous atmosphere.
José Giraldo (flamenco guitar) and Marcus Perrozzi on percussion displayed their skill and verve, elaborating on the theme from the film Orfeo Negro, set in the Carnevale of Rio de Janiero. Perrozzi brought brio to his engagement with many different drums. Giraldo announced the plaintive melody and embroidered the variations with masterful restraint and sureness.
In 1929, Lorca seized the chance to travel to New York. Arriving with barely a word of English, the Wall Street crash in progress, his first experiences were daunting. Then he discovered Harlem with its negro spirituals (now called gospel songs), blues and jazz music, the diverse population, the accepting atmosphere: here was nourishment for his wounded soul.
Ashanti Suriyam choreographed the tap dance in Harlem Surprise, her evocation of that sector of New York in 1929. There were several surprises. First, the pianist entered carrying a trombone. Formentin, a plain wool poncho in place of her opulent Spanish shawl, rendered with great sincerity a moving spiritual. Suriyam, in a short orange dress, exploded onto the stage, tapping frenetically with Ricercato, Henderson and Pradera playing hand-held percussion including the tambourine. Inviting the (by now mellow) audience to clap along was a risky ploy. Surprise of surprises, the substantial Perrozzi proved to be a light-footed and accomplished tap-dancer as the singer demonstrated her versatility, playing trombone in the exuberant final ensemble.
Torres’ Tientos por Tangos opened the second half. The four dancers wore the long, flounced skirt with train, the bata de cola, so graceful and so fiendish to manage convincingly. Richly embroidered silks enfolded their svelte torsos. Henderson’s beautifully poised head and seemingly boneless arms combined compellingly with the incisiveness of her foot percussion. The dance evolved into a Tangos, the lighter mood embodied in the final turn and sassy flick of their skirts.
A classic flamenco solea followed for guitar and cajon, the simple wooden box capable of so many subtleties of sound while doubling as a seat. Giraldo’s distinguished appearance, his strong fingers plying the guitar strings, brought us a sense of his native Madrid.
Next a song, En el Café de Chinitas, of two brothers vying with each other for courage and skill in the bullfight. There followed the Sevillanas del Siglo XVIII, the regional dance of Seville as performed in the eighteenth century. Accompanied by piano and song and by their castanets, Henderson and Pradera drew on their ballet backgrounds in this energetic version with its high extensions, springs and turns. Dressed in bouffant orange costumes and ballet slippers, they embodied lightness and joy. The pianist set a stinging pace, challenging the dancers’ timeliness towards the end.
The contrasting couple, Neville Cohn and Deanna Blacher, provided an electrifying tribute to Lorca’s friend and colleague the famous dancer La Argentina, with Albeniz’ Cordoba and de Falla’s Andaluza. The pianist, dressed in quiet blacks, facing away from the audience, began the flowing introduction, drawing with apparent ease handfuls of lyrical melody from the piano. With contained dignity, resplendent in Spanish costume, Blacher carefully adjusted her castanets and took up her pose. The authority of her opening dry trill caught the audience mid-sentence. From then, not a sound was heard but the magic of the combination: music distilled from Moorish, Sephardic and gypsy heritage, rendered on these two contrasting instruments with consummate skill and feeling.
It is not possible to play melody on castanets; the right hand is tuned a little higher than the left, that is all. Blacher used graceful sweeping movements of the arms and subtle changes of pose to complement the melody. In doing so, she added a further layer of virtuosity, as the fingers must adjust to the changing orientation of the castanet shells as the arms move.
In festive floral costumes and flourishing large fringed shawls, the dancers showed their individuality and beauty in Vargas’ Tarantos por Tangos, Henderson opening with a cascade of rapid perfect chaîné turns. Skilful arrangement provided episodes of activity and quiescence rather than a continuous barrage, giving each dancer her moments of prominence.
The traditional bulerias finale in ebullient party mood gave the dancers an opportunity to let their hair down a little with their own improvised solo spots.
Flamenco is an evolving art, capable of a range of expression, from the rawest primitive heartsong to the polished cabaret entertainment seen here. The four young dancers are in command of their technique and stagecraft. They are exploring their individual essence, that which transcends technique. Producer and director Deanna Blacher allowed them a degree of autonomy in this production. Judging by audience response, her confidence was not misplaced.
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