Viva Espana!

Danza Viva Spanish Dance Company

Octagon Theatre

reviewed by Ken Gasmier


Vivas rebounding for Danza Viva’s splendid Viva Espana! which saw flamenco and clasico espanol artist Paloma Gomez return to perform and work with the company (Octagon Theatre, January 25, 2014).

Justly famed as solo dancer and teacher, Gomez was a member of Spain’s national dance company from age 17 and has been lead dancer with companies in Spain, USA and Canada. From the extrovert passions of flamenco to the cool power of classical Spanish dance, Gomez’ style is proud, exalting. The graceful statement of her arms alone can express hauteur or humour, sadness or sexuality.

It’s well known that Danza Viva’s visiting artists muck in behind the scenes with the Company. Thus Gomez led intensive workshops in flamenco clasico espanol, escuela bolero and castanets. But this special engagement foregrounds too onstage:

Gomez’ star quality was in no way flown in to be simply grafted or plonked onto a merely industrious background formed by a local chorus. For one thing, Danza Viva obviously has artists whose levels of practice in choreography, costume and dance itself can seamlessly match and counterfoil. One thinks of artists such as Nicola de la Rosa who leads the Company or indeed Deanna Blacher herself.

All this is very authentic to Spanish dance, which is definable as a percussive ensemble form where each dancer is allowed individuality not interfering with the overall art. Indeed, the audience found itself reflecting on the differently pleasing stage personalities of each dancer, perhaps, but not always, stemming from Australia’s hard-won multiculturalism.

Here was true ensemble where solos stood out, interwove or melted into the whole dance canvas. A lesson perhaps to today’s professional opera where disparate international soloists with widely differing ideas of, for instance, vibrato and tuning, frequently fail to achieve ensemble on the night. And the results are broadcast.

Concierto de Aranjuez to Rodrigo’s music firstly set a high which the program continued.

Well-known, probably clichéd, music but new things were said to it in the choreography of Gomez and Blacher for an ensemble of twelve including Gomez.

The slow central movement was pure solo, unadorned, exposed, with Gomez emerging from a black wrapped foetal position of grief and vulnerability to pay emotional homage to the memory of her late father. His own theatrical cape, in fact, became fluidly airborne and, if one listened very carefully as the printed program prompted us to do, the adapted words of Garcia Lorca were spoken from offstage …this cape when it swirls carries hidden in its flight… memory.

The right balance of recorded music (including even film music in no. 4 Habla con Ella) and live music was struck:

Flamenco singer Antonio Soria is at heart an unspoilt and naturalistic tenor yet steeped in the vocal technique of his chosen art. He can exude the studiously casual bravado of the stage Latino or be noisily, spontaneously earthy. Kieran Ray showed why he is arguably our finest flamenco guitarist. No precious clunks on the finger board here. His instrument sang with Antonio. Whether in ensemble with the dancing cast, or in movements purely their own, the duo brought welcome male energy toppling into machismo. But more please, in the form of male dancers would have been very welcome:

When for instance in no. 3 El Vito, little girls joined the ensemble mid-act, smilingly bright like babuschka doll versions of their bigger female colleagues, and similarly elaborately costumed, I eagerly awaited black waistcoated little matadors with brilliantined hair. Alas, there were no older male dolls from which they could pop. The powerful beer, barbeque and footy culture of Oz is at work here, I am sure, and not the inclusive vision and effort of the Company over many years.

Karen Henderson, also a dancer-soloist, undertook the design and making of costumes. These worked freshly and seamlessly as one of the forces lifting Viva Espana! into excellence. I found the tessellated fringes of no.9 Ay Jondo and the early Technicolour tones and felt-like surfaces of costumes in no.6 El Polo, charming.

Just as J. S. Bach wrote the The Art of Fugue, Deanna Blacher could write, or has effectively already written, The Art of Segue.

Because Viva Espana! was also satisfyingly about how transitions were managed, how were they varied? Some were so gradual as to be unnoticed. Some were dramatically sudden, often through clever use of lighting. Often the ensemble was theatrically joined halfway through an act by additional members. A clever orchestration lay also in how some cast left in one number and re-entered differently costumed. No series of separate tableaux here but a forward moving, seductive flow. It’s all about links and joins matching content. A novelist, film maker, musician or even humble reviewer has much to learn from Danza Viva.

So why do Spanish dance? Is it a necessary commodity ? How does it fit with our mainly suburban life ? Why, indeed, learn Chinese and research the Great Wall or how to sing Schubert ? Or labour to invent a solar powered air conditioner ?

Intensely physical, Spanish dance also opens up and populates the imagination. It is the antithesis of the Australian Idol dream of instant fame and gratification:

Blacher has written words which apply to any creativity:

For me Spanish dance is about freedom of expression but with a very structured and demanding technique as onerous as any devised in classical ballet and contemporary dance.

Finally, Viva Espana! seemed about how artists use their allotted resources – not that in this case these needed in any way to be eked out, for they are very rich. The choreographic variety of both Spanish classical and flamenco traditions were faithfully represented, even lovingly added to.

A company of differing levels, experience and ages were so melded into a greater whole of colour and movement by the Company’s artistic leadership that our attention and appreciation was constantly held at a high level. There was the art which conceals art and the best possible ordering of movements to tell a subliminal story. Any slight glitches seemed down more to backstage technical support nerves than from the proudly centred performers.

A wide ranging and appreciative crowd came for both afternoon and night showings. From those in this lively audience who were hardboiled dance professionals, to those who like myself, may not always have known a castanet from a candelabra, all loved it as one of Danza Viva’s best and most beautifully paced offerings so far.

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