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BWW Review: GALA FLAMENCA 2017, Sadler's Wells

What could be more cheering in a dank, dark London February than a blast of Spanish flamenco? Answer: a Sadler's Wells flamenco gala, a fistful of stellar talents for the price of one.

In past years the gala - part of the Wells' annual flamenco fortnight - has been a blink-or-you'll miss it affair. Happily it now runs to four performances, so hurry to bag a piece of it. It's worth a year's supply of Vitamin D.

For the first five minutes the musicians and dancers are finding their feet. They may have only just met that afternoon, after all, and the short ensemble numbers that bookend this show were clearly not the highest priority.

Given what follows, we forgive them. In the true spirit of flamenco, this is as much a concert as a dance show - in the traditional hierarchy guitar, voice and dance get equal billing, though here the singers are slightly to the fore. In a number called "Romance a Cordoba" Rocio Marquez - already a star at 31 - gives a taste of her unusual vocal style. There's none of that tubercular rasp - hers is a voice of solid silver, with a fast vibrato that brings to mind the delicate bleat of a lamb. She uses it to effect in tumbling melismas that go on and on riding a single breath through multiple harmonic shifts. You find yourself forgetting to breathe until the melisma eases to a halt in its home key.

The true spirit of flamenco isn't easily packaged for the theatre, as producers know to their cost. Trying to identify the numbers as printed in the Sadler's Wells programme is a hopeless task - clearly items have been dropped, others added late in the day. But you quickly get the picture. Lyrically, the youthful Marquez is contrasted with the older singer Herminia Borja, a roaring grandmother with a 100-a-day nicotine scrape of a voice.

Of the dancers, tiny, nifty Olga Pericet - an innovator who is happy to gender-switch in an angular, strutting Martinete - is cast in opposition to ultra-feminine Patricia Guerrero. Juana Amaya, a legend in her lifetime, sits at the apex of the triangle as the crowned queen of flamenco pura, fierce guardian of tradition. Her every move leaves you in no doubt as to the domestic balance of power in flamenco culture. Matriarchy rules OK.

Despite the difficulty (for non-aficionados) of identifying the numbers, the gala is beautifully put together. Throughout a long, narrative ballad about some incident or other at the feria (surtitles would have been helpful), a dancer kneels on a chair gazing upward, perhaps in prayer, and doesn't move until the song is over when she rises with an elaborate swirl of her shawl, the size of a bedspread.

A long solo dance sequence by cock-of-the-roost Jesus Carmona gives the man's side of the story. His footwork - a blur of speed - is the focus, but his hands and wrists are beautiful too, summoning the growth of climbing plants, the curl of bulls' horns.

Amaya, statuesque in white, sleek from neck to hips then a riot of frills to the floor, starts by weaving a quiet spell with upward-coiling hands. Only once the spell is cast does she let rip with drum-kit heels, her upper half registering a lifetime of emotions in quick succession: playfulness, pleading, triumph, despair. This is a man-eater, a world-beater, no doubt the champion of chorizo stew to boot. Pity the daughter-in-law of such a woman! It is with some surprise that, when she stops dancing, you see that she is crying.

Gala Flamenca 2017 is at Sadler's Wells till 25 February

Photo credit: Ana Palma

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