Dancer Eva Yerbabuena believes that inherent in the integrity of flamenco's rich traditions should be "the courage to leave one's heart open to what life brings." The award-winning dancer/choreographer is known for deftly negotiating the tricky fusion of innovation and tradition, finding unparalleled expressive freedom in the centuries-old song forms that are the backbone of flamenco. For Yerbabuena, flamenco is a spontaneous personal language.
Not surprisingly, that comes through most clearly in her own movement. In Saturday night's Boston premiere of "Santo y Seña" (Signs and Wonders), presented as part of World Music's ninth annual Flamenco Festival, the 37-year-old Yerbabuena brought along four male dancers, four singers, and four instrumentalists. But the large cast ultimately felt a little bloated, as the stage only caught fire when Yerbabuena herself was front and center.
The opening Siguirya had it all. Yerbabuena, dressed in somber black, clicked on the harsh glare of an overhead light and proceeded to quietly summon the spirit within. Sitting on a short stool, head bowed, she waited in silence until moved to rise and begin a slow, ruminative dance of smooth glides and deeply arched turns. As the singers made their way onstage, Yerbabuena's introspection seemed to be pulled outward, into the here and now, finding inspiration in the keening wails of the song.
Then Yerbabuena veritably exploded, exhibiting some of the tightest, most dynamic footwork in flamenco. Her furious volleys, unleashed with astonishing speed and clarity, were impeccably synched to the lively rhythms of the guitarists, music director Paco Jarana (who is Yerbabuena's husband) and Manuel de la Luz. Deeply musical, Yerbabuena contributed both emphasis and counterpoint to the score. Yet just as quickly, she could shift into whispered taps that barely grazed the floor, legs darting forward and back, side to side. And what extraordinary arms the woman has, fluid and soft yet possessing a tensile elasticity. They don't just curl and coil, fingers sculpting the air with luxurious ripples. They slice and stab, pulling the body into sharp, startling angles.
After that dynamite opening, the show lost steam, vacillating predictably between solos by Yerbabuena and choreographed routines for the four males dancers. Yerbabuena contrasted two more dramatic dances with a lovely, almost playful dance with a voluminous orange shawl, flourishing it with the bravado of a toreador or the delicacy of a mother welcoming a child's embrace, all the while swirling a long, flounced train.
The choreography for the men was disappointingly stilted, seeming more labored than inventive, characterized by a lot of unison posturing and imitated phrases. However, the dancers were solid technicians, and in one number for three of them the hard-hitting footwork driven by the syncopated rhythms of the drum and the palmas (clapping) had a thrilling, visceral energy.
When allowed the opportunity for individual flourishes, the men showed spark and spontaneity, but it wasn't quite enough to balance the program.
The Flamenco Festival continues next weekend with Noche Flamenca and Soledad Barrio, among the art form's most ardent and accomplished proponents of the traditional flamenco puro style.