The heart of the Gypsies beats to staccato feet

Celebrated Spanish dancers sizzle on stage in Flamenco Festival.

The bare stage at Boston's Shubert Theatre is far from the caves of Andalusia, but that's where the two fiery Spanish troupes of Flamenco Festival USA began their tour last week, carrying enough heat to melt this winter's deep freeze.

The two companies make up the festival - Farruquito y Amaya and Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras - represent different approaches to flamenco, one of the traditional forms of Spanish dance.

Miguel Marin, the youthful impresario who originally packaged the festival in Spain, compares the diverse styles of flamenco to modern dance in America.

"Flamenco has changed a lot in the past 10 years," says Mr. Marin. "We not only have great interpreters but also great creators. Now, it's not only that you dance a certain way and repeat that over and over, today other artists have interest to create new things."

Farruquito and Ms. Amaya embody the continuing heritage as it has been passed down through the generations. "These two dancers are unique because they are from Gypsy families in Seville," says Marin.

Flamenco originated with migrating Gypsies who settled in southern Spain. Improvisation is at the heart of it - allowing one's feelings to inspire hands winding in filigree patterns and staccato feet. Flamenco dancing has grown in popularity over the last two decades, thanks in part to well-trained dancers. About 25,000 people attended last year's six city sold-out Flamenco Festival USA.

Farruquito, the stunning 20-year-old prodigy, had a legendary performer as role model: his grandfather, El Farruco, who died in 1997. Farruquito learned flamenco by shadowing him. "Dancing with my grandfather was the best thing that ever happened to me. He taught me everything I know," says Farruquito (born Juan Manuel Fernández).

Farruquito and his grandfather are recorded dancing together in the 1995 Carlos Saura film, "Flamenco."

Celebrated flamenco performer Amaya recalls a childhood at "the family meetings and the parties they made while they got together that finished at sunrise," she says.

Farruquito and Amaya present an evening of flamenco music, song, and dance that is marked by a freedom of expression, with simplicity of presentation at its core, to convey a sense of duende, the mysterious flamenco term which translates as baring one's soul in the spotlight.

Dancing to rhythms established by the clapping of cupped hands, they share the stage with Pepe Torres and the 14-year-old Farruco, who is Farruquito's younger brother, plus a company of four singers, three guitarists, and a percussionist, in the world première of "Por Derecho," which means "to continue in a straight and direct manner."

Farruquito is a sizzling performer of rock-star charisma with shoulder-length hair and brooding stage presence. He's likely to drop to his knees and bounce up again before finishing a phrase with a complex volley of pounding steps.

When Amaya danced alone late in the second act of "Por Derecho," her mood grew in intensity as she built the velocity of her foot movements: changing their syncopation, making them cross or lightly touch one another, but never losing the beat. Another look at tradition is Jocelyn Ajami's new flamenco film 'Queen of the Gypsies,' about Carmen Amaya (1913-1963), perhaps the most beloved of the 20th-century flamenco performers.

While "flamenco puro" is enough for these performers, others in Spain are transforming the traditions to make contemporary works, no doubt influenced in part by the success of "Riverdance" in portraying an image of national culture. One creator is Sara Baras, currently "the most popular dancer in Spain," according to Marin.

Like Amaya and Farruquito, Ms. Baras began studying flamenco as a child in her mother's studio. An accomplished performer, model, and television personality, she is also choreographer for her company, Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras. Making her debut in this country, Baras presents the North American première of "Mariana Pineda," an evening-length work about the 19th-century Spanish heroine.

"Mariana Pineda," based on the 1925 play by Federico Garcia Lorca, has been directed by Luis Pasqual with a new musical score by Manolo Sanlucar. It's as much a story ballet as "Swan Lake" or "Giselle." But while flamenco technique provides most of the dance vocabulary, Baras has borrowed from modern dance, ballet, and tap.

Afterwards, the dancers keep moving. "Here, every night after the show we come and sing and dance. It's part of the lifestyle," Marin says. "And people call and tell us, 'Shut up.' "

• The Flamenco Festival runs this weekend at New York's City Center Theater and in Washington D.C., then continues in Albuquerque, N.M.; Vancouver, British Columbia; San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley, Calif., through mid-February. For more information on the flamenco film 'Queen of the Gypsies': www.gypsyheartproductions.com

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