Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras opens this year’s Flamenco Festival London at Sadler’s Wells to well-deserved uproarious applause with their enthrallingly innovative and spectacular show, Sombras.
Sara Baras stands in no man’s shadow. Deemed a ‘superstar’ of the flamenco world, an internationally acclaimed dancer, choreographer and director, Baras’ light remains undimmed in her latest work, Sombras. Translated as ‘Shadows’ in Spanish, Sombras contains all the play of light and dark, absence and presence that the word denotes. It’s these tones of high and low, joy and pain, ecstatic and melancholic emotion that characterise classical flamenco and are celebrated with a flourish in the show. But what Sombras and Baras herself emerge from are the shadows of flamenco’s past. Using her signature style, La Farruca, a quick-footed dance traditionally performed by men, Baras stands triumphant and set apart from the shades of former bailaoras (flamenco dancers). We see this when she steps out from a troupe of seven silhouetted figures – Baras, the only one clad in a crimson coat and cut altogether from a different elemental cloth than the rest. We see this in her matador-like command; her arched and ready frame sharp against a shaft of white light, a red scarf slicing through darkness with equal exactitude. And we see this in her perfect pirouettes; in spins more precise than the disc of Seville orange setting at the back of the Andalusian-inspired stage. Sara Baras stands in no man’s shadow.
That’s not to say that Baras turns her heel at the origins of flamenco – far from it. Sombras pays respect to flamenco’s famed aesthetics and techniques, as much as the multiple innovations that artists like Baras have brought to it. The second part, simply titled ‘Farruca’, amply demonstrates this. Here Baras seemingly battles her own shadow on stage, with nothing but Keko Baldomero’s exquisite guitar solos for company. It’s a powerful vision: standing centre stage with her back to the audience, Baras appears stridently autonomous, uncompromisingly in control. Dressed head to toe in male attire – the iconic tight black trousers and waistcoat that former male bailaoras wear – with her hair scraped back into an immaculate plait, she is all self-possession and tailored finesse. Stripping away the usual frills and ruffles of bata de cola dresses reserved for women performers (they will make a fleeting appearance later), Baras assumes the command and technique that comes with the austere garments. In doing so the body is less encumbered, almost ‘naked’ as she has remarked in past interviews, where each intensely held move and twist of the torso is exposed to view. Turning to face the audience, at first with delicate hand gestures then grand upward-turned sweepings of the arms, Baras masters the rapid-fire footwork she is known for. Delving deep into herself, into the heart and literal soul /sole of Farruca, Baras insistently beats into the floor with her heels as if she was channelling the soil of her native Cádiz, which is one of three cities famed for nurturing flamenco. Behind her, sprung from her very heels, several shadows appear, a genderless concertina of Baras’ moving form – or guiding shades fanned out into a mesmeric mobile procession. Yet Baras is never overshadowed by these sombras; instead, she emanates them, throws them out – they are hers after all. But they are also Lorca’s ‘dark sounds’ surging up ‘from the soles of the feet’, the deathly passionate force of duende evoked in this solo and subsequent dances to come.
In the first of three voice recordings in Spanish, these shadows are compared to a creative force of biblical proportions. They are Genesis’ sexless spirit hovering over the surface of dark waters; the unborn waiting to be birthed: ‘I will say that once I was a shadow, wrapped up, hidden, big, small; shadow, trapped, concealed, dreamlike, real; shadow…like flame, like water, like wind, like calm.’ This recording positions the style of Farruca as an indeterminate state, one between life and death; a thing of ripe, riotous bodily potential still open to being formed, shaped and harnessed anew. As a woman wearing traditional male flamenco garb, Baras literally taps into this indeterminate, genderless, ancestral energy of Farruca. But later a final voice recording (one that Baras herself intones) confirms the feminine core of a once masculine phenomenon, the female presence evoked and informed by the titular ‘sombras’: ‘La Farruca is my shadow…she leads me by the hand…always her, deep, flamenca, she is the many-sided reflection…the most intimate solitude.’ You cannot have this masculine skill without its focussed feminine energy, Baras insists; the power of a shadow’s absence lies in the female presence it points back to.
If this intense section of La Farruca releases the feminine energy, then those that follow allow it to dominate. Conjuring them with the enthralling, flying force of her heels, Baras welcomes two cantaors (singers) – the exceptional Israel Fernàndez and Rubio de Pruna – at once dancing to their rhythms and setting the beat for those that step onto the stage. To songs of heart-piercing woe and exuberant joy, Baras enters the scene relinquishing the sombre formality of traditional costume and now a blaze of colour. Red, then turquoise, then white, then black, then red again; Baras’ dresses are a spectacle in themselves, fanning out in beautiful layers akin to the replicated shadows of her earlier performance. The abundance of rich, figure-flowing fabric doesn’t inhibit her continued use of Farruca – rather it allows her to expand it; to flood the stage with both the palette and toe-tapping, heel-hitting sounds of Southern Spain. Wearing a white and black tiered and tasselled robe (an altogether grander design than the frivolous flapper dress that initially comes to mind), Baras spins and glides, toes whizzing terrifically off the floor in an enthralling display of embodied passion. Shadows and light; absence and presence are folded in and thrown outwards with each tumultuous turn. Using a red tasselled shawl wound luxuriously around her upper body, the effect is amplified, with Baras a whirl of colour hitting the senses and throwing shades of coral red, charcoal grey, ice white onto the stage. The costumes hint that we’ve come full circle since the strict suit of black, the thin red neckerchief and the stark white backdrop of the opening dance: shadows linger then disappear, faded colours dissolve and flame into new tones, familiar reverberations, evocative melodies and echoes of flamenco’s gypsy origins are heard but, as one of the voice recordings says, Baras’ ‘hypnotic magic is a constant’.
Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras’ Sombras was performed at Sadler’s Wells from the 2 to 7 July. Click the links for more information about Sadler’s Wells Flamenco Festival London 2019, which continues with performances by the excellent Rocío Molina, Olga Pericet, Patricia Guerrero and many more.
- Feature image: Sara Baras in Sombras, photograph by Sofia Wittert.
- Image 3: Sara Baras in Sombras, photograph by Sofia Wittert.
- Image 4: Sara Baras in Sombras, photography by Juliette Valtiendas.