Saturday, 20 February 2010

Eva Yerbabuena at Sadler's Wells

Lluvia is Eva Yerbabuena's nominally solo show as part of the Sadler's Wells flamenco festival. In fact, as I'd imagine is often the case (I did a lot of imagining last night, by the way, so excuse pockets of over-excited ignorance), whilst she is clearly the star of Lluvia, she works with four other dancers, three musicians (two indefatigable guitarists and a percussionist) and a quartet of singers for the full 90-minute stretch.

Lluvia couches various episodes of flamenco in a vague theatrical framework (Lluvia - or 'Rain' - we are told, concerns "melancholy, desamor – lack of love – and their seemingly endless moments in our lives"). I have a natural distrust of trying to impose theatrics on spectacles that are inherently dramatic - staging song cycles & oratorios, films of sporting events, etc. - but I was quickly won over for two reasons.

Firstly, the dance is probably out of its own generic home anyway, being performed here on a stage in front of a couple of thousand rather than in a bar in Seville. Second, the performers played fast and loose with the 'walls' of theatre, not least as this seems to be the nature of flamenco itself. It quickly becomes apparent that the dancing is profoundly serious. There is no suspicion of a performer (dancer or singer) 'playing a character' but consequently the performance moves in a tidal fashion between such moments of personal expression and moments of respite in which everyone seems to ignore not only their involvment in the moment but also the need to cater for an audience. Such moments of informality sit oddly with this fairly seasoned theatre-goer used to a fourth wall being up most of the time. However, the authenticity of the experience is unimpeachable and I was swept along by it without qualification.

What's to like? The dancing is 'sexual but not sexy' (to quote my companion for the evening), and consequently has a narrative that is not only inextricable from its physicality but also impossible to transliterate. I imagine this is what good dancing consists in, generally. The uninitiated probably associates flamenco with stamping a fair bit (guilty) and there are episodes of thrilling, aggressive footwork. There is a complementary world of stylised dancing too though, upper-body gestures or great flexibility which have the same closed vernacular as the singing - they are performed as statements, rather than the flowing dialectic physical drama of classical ballet for example (again from my limited experience). This pride-in-poise recalls the belligerence in the face of fate attitude of the Torero facing down the bull, legs locked.

Alongside the dancing is a world of musical complexity that I'd never registered before. It is quite impossible to talk about the metre of the rhythms, flying weightlessly across the insistent pulse of the percussion and clapping singers. My only previous experience of this has been the comparatively simplistic hemiola-redefining baroque music of South America and Mexico. Tethered to the virtuosic guitar playing - not only the run-picking but also the foundationless layered chords - this makes for a deeply satisfying musical event on its own. What I couldn't fail to notice here was the relationship between the manner in which such music is performed and the devotional Islamic music of Qawwali; sung in a baroque, extemporised belt fashion the vocal lines are highly melismatic, effect-peppered and fly over a tabla (yes, La Yerbabuena's troupe percussionist was using a tabla). Indeed as I write this I'm listening to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.

Indeed, similarly to my understanding of Qawwali, Lluvia solicited increaing outbursts from the audience, responding to or encouraging the musicians. It was impossible not to be strongly affected by this show and its attendant performances, a terrific evening in the theatre.

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