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Ever-evolving flamenco seen in 'Elements'

In ''The Four Elements," which opened World Music's Flamenco Festival 2005, earth, air, fire, and water represented four contrasting styles of flamenco. It was an unusually theatrical concept for flamenco, which generally unfolds as raw emotional expression. Complete with scenic design and a flamboyantly lit backdrop, it seemed unnecessarily contrived in places, even distracting from the dance. But this Spanish production (directed by an American, former Martha Graham dancer Jacqulyn Buglisi) showcased the depth and variety of the centuries-old art form as it is evolving today, with traces of modern influences. Gerardo Nunez's jazz-tinged music reinforced the contemporary spirit, with the superb ensemble of three guitars, two singers, and a percussionist joined by saxophonist Perico Sambeat.

Following the dramatic, tightly choreographed opening, with all the dancers posturing in a pool of light, the compelling Rocio Molina emerged as Water, clad in a ruffled blue/green gown that looked like waves flecked with sea foam. Her sensuous rolling hips and undulating torso were complemented by serpentine movements in the arms that ebbed and flowed with fluid ripples. Deep backbend turns often led to bursts of more vigorous gestures, with hands that flashed and darted like small fish. This was flamenco that was both thoroughly grounded in tradition yet looking to knock some cobwebs out of the corners.

Alejandro Granados was solid and powerful as Earth. But with his hunched shoulders and clenched fists, he too often looked like a small boy in the midst of a tantrum. Instead of coming across as centered and grounded, he seemed mostly squat and clunky, and the taped Native American music that introduced his segment did him no service. It was a jarring miscalculation that was totally unnecessary given the live talent onstage and the vibrance of Nunez's original music.

Carlos Rodriguez brought a light, playful insouciance to Air. His ''Fandango" drew almost as much upon ballet, jazz, and modern dance as flamenco. Dynamic and articulate, he soared through graceful turns, limbs lifted with flamboyant upsweep then released with a luxurious sense of suspension and breath. However, the constant facial mugging cheapened the effect.

In a red dress of tattered streamers that flickered like flames with every turn, Carmen Cortes was an impressive Fire. Her ''Solea de un son eterno" offered the most emotionally grounded and most traditional dancing of the evening. Impeccable footwork ranged from the delicate, nuanced taps of a woodpecker to high-kicking stomps that could pound nails.

Nunez offered a guitar solo, ''Templo del lucero," that began with a new age-style rhapsody reminiscent of Ralph Towner, then seued into a lively display of dazzling flamenco facility, with blistering runs and percussive chord work.

''The Four Elements" repeats tonight; Flamenco de Camara is scheduled for performances tomorrow and Sunday.

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