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Fusion Flamenco unites raw movement, theatrical flair

MADRID -- The curtain goes halfway up, revealing four figures in black. Seated, hunched in a circle, they respond to guitar music with their hands slapping their knees and their feet tapping the floor. The music seems to propel the performers to stand up and leave, as in a prologue. One by one, they return to perform solos and a duet, playing ''Earth," ''Air," ''Fire," and ''Water" in a production called ''The Four Elements," which premiered in the Teatro Albeniz last fall.

Call it Fusion Flamenco or, as producer Miguel Marin prefers, ''a collaboration that brings together Spanish and American artists." Jacqulyn Buglisi, a former Martha Graham dancer, staged the evening-length work, directing both the traffic and the mood onstage, and also helped with the concept, says Marin. It's novel for flamenco, traditionally a dance of raw spontaneity, to have a ''concept."

''The Four Elements" represents both flamenco's farthest shores and a back-to-basics purity. The show comes to Boston this week, one of two programs in World Music's sixth Flamenco Festival. The other, ''Flamenco de Camara," is essentially a 1½-hour duet for dancer Belen Maya and singer Mayte Martin. In an art identified with machismo, the two women are doing quite well on their own, thank you.

The World Music appearances are part of a tour put together by Marin, who is to flamenco what Serge Diaghilev was to the Ballets Russes: an impresario with his own theatrical flair. In the past, Marin has brought to Boston extravaganzas involving elaborate sets, costumes, and plotlines. They strayed pretty far from traditional flamenco.

In its own way, ''The Four Elements" does, too. New York fashion designer Miguel Adrover did the costumes, revisiting the standard-issue flamenco attire. In ''Water," the baby-faced 21-year-old Rocio Molina wears an aquatic blue gown with tiers of frayed cloth that suggest the froth on ocean waves and a train that looks like a mermaid's tail and is a challenge to wield. In ''Fire," the flamenco diva Carmen Cortes -- as dark and stern looking as an early Picasso portrait -- wears a gown with hundreds of shreds of red cloth attached to it, suggesting flickering flames.

The innovations create a context and a paradox. Marin told the dancers he picked -- Gerardo Nunez, Alejandro Granados, and Carlos Rodriguez in addition to the two women -- to indulge themselves and their audiences in the purist strains of flamenco.

''This year I wanted to see more dance just for the heck of it," says Marin over lunch in a cafe near the Teatro Albeniz, where ''The Four Elements" would have its world premiere that night. He gobbles down a fat slice of chocolate cake followed by a second course of potato chips, neither of which prevents him from talking at the speed of a flamenco master's heelwork.

''I selected the performers and said to them, 'I want a show that is very simple. No stories, no sets, just dance,' " he explains. Buglisi's contribution included ''coaching the soloists on giving meaning and depth to their dancing," Marin says.

The look of ''The Four Elements" came out of a visit that Marin, Buglisi, and lighting designer Clifton Taylor paid to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where there was a Rothko show including large canvases, each filled with a single, hovering rectangle of intense color.

''His paintings were a revelation to me," Marin says, rhapsodizing about ''the emotion those colors convey. They inspired the use of color in 'The Four Elements.' " Just as Rothko's paintings usually focus on a single hue, so does each of the elements.

Fusion Flamenco is a radical departure for an art that many flamencologists think began as a furtive activity, first documented in the 18th century as a way for impoverished gypsies to vent their frustrations through dancing and singing spontaneously, for one another rather than for a paying public. There's also a camp that believes that Arabs and Jews hiding in the mountains of Andalusia to avoid being forced to convert to Catholicism contributed greatly to flamenco's mournful music. In that case, the art was multicultural from the beginning.

For a couple of centuries, flamenco was handed down from one generation of gypsies to the next; there were no formal schools teaching it, as there are now.

Flamenco families still exist, though, and family ties are strong. ''When we tour," Marin says, ''We go home between each city so the artists can see their families. We're not like an American company that goes on the road for six months at a time."

The Flamenco Festival in Boston this week bears little resemblance to the all-night-long fests of yore in Andalusia when dancers kicked up the dust in open-air courtyards. For starters, the performances will be on the proscenium stage in the Cutler Majestic Theatre. Flamenco long ago moved indoors, and the performers dance and make music for audiences unlikely to get up and join in. And while there is still some improvisation, basically the choreography is set ahead of time.

After flamenco moved inside, and before the current wave of innovations, the art was performed in tablaos -- shows in the sort of smoky cafe setting depicted in John Singer Sargent's ''El Jaleo," the best-loved flamenco painting in the world, in the permanent collection of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Most tablaos have devolved into slick dinner-theater productions aimed at tourists. There are a couple of old-school survivors: Las Carboneras in Madrid and Los Gallos in Seville. But flamenco has become a theatrical art that, just like ballet, belongs to the world.

From Madrid, Marin says, ''the show goes to Tokyo, where they're wild about flamenco. There are more schools of flamenco in Japan than in Spain. Japanese people come here to study, and even to get married. There's a hotel in Granada that specializes in Japanese flamenco weddings."

Marin himself studied flamenco in New York. ''When you're here [in Madrid], you ignore it," he says. He's spent considerable time in America, including a year in Kansas City, which is Seville's sister city. There he worked as a prompter in a theater. ''But I wasn't much help to the actors. They couldn't understand my English," he says in English that by now is only delicately tinged with a Spanish accent. He went on to earn a master's in arts production at New York University. At 37 -- ''but if you put it in the paper make it 32" -- he's become a major force in his field. ''What I'm best known for," he says, ''is bringing flamenco to America."

His tours demonstrate that flamenco is a living, evolving art. Take the Martin and Maya show. ''It is absolutely, completely unheard of to have two women perform flamenco together," says Maya, sitting in a hotel lobby in the Spanish capital. On a previous US tour, she was criticized ''for not performing true flamenco," she says with a smile, ''because I didn't use castanets or big fringed shawls," two of the art's cliches. There are no splashy effects in her programs, no fancy lighting, just dance and music.

She and Martin travel with a musical ensemble that does include two male guitarists, along with two female ''clappers." But ''It's important to me that the majority of the company is women," Maya says adamantly. Feminist Flamenco. Who'd have thought?

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