Downtown Flamenco, Uptown Action

Most flamenco-savvy New Yorkers revere Martin Santangelo’s cuadro, Noche Flamenca, whose queen—the diminutive and shattering Soledad Barrio, Santangelo’s spouse—has long conquered our hearts. The troupe’s appearances here—especially at intimate Theater 80 where they can keep things simple and real—are occasions for joyful worship. The faithful pay due homage to these fine performers who, this spring, include dancers Barrio, Alejandro Granados, and Juan Ogalla, singers Nieves Diaz, Emilio Florido, and Manuel Gago, and guitarists Eugenio Iglesias and Luis Miguel Manzano. “Cielo de Tierra”—the company’s world premiere program, dedicated to their late colleague, cantador Antonio Vizarraga—serves as a prime example of how to craft a thrilling work of dance theater.

Flamenco need not be huge to be grand. Garish, formulaic production numbers undermine the deeply expressive nature of this art. Santangelo, valuing authenticity above all, prefers flamenco’s glory to steadily emerge from the darkness and hush of a small, near-empty stage. At Theater 80, the performance space abuts and barely rises above the first row’s floor level. Whoever sits up close risks getting showered by a spinning dancer’s sweat. Sometimes the soulful cries of a singer approaching the audience feel like a personal serenade, and the quiet, subtle agility with which the guitarists play sweep us away on ripples of silver sound.

Working with lighting designer Mark London, Santangelo explores all possibilities inherent in Theater 80’s shallow space. His uncluttered staging turns performers into individual or clustered jewels wrapped in velvety near-darkness and strategically revealed by spotlights. The arrangement of performers constantly shifts, creating a lively, flowing stage picture. Sometimes—as in the exciting opener, “La Plaza”—washes of light softly warm pensive faces or wriggling fingers.

Granados is a veteran performer whose passion overrules limits of age and physique. For his “Solea,” he strolls to center stage into a far chillier light, underscoring his dignity in the face of life’s challenges. With steps flaring and turns slashing, he fights back, looking miraculously younger, looser, and sexier with every passing minute. When Barrio teams up with him in “Tientos,” the pair display all the frightful moxie of Astaire and Rogers at their best.

Ogalla, marking his first season with the company, is a wizard of staccato moves, bright zapateado, and odd, rock-star flourishes in “Maria,” his masterful alegrias. There’s something unique about him and tough to describe, an elusive nuttiness that drives the audience nuts. I might not call him sensual, but then again, during his solo my neighbor started chewing her gum double-time.

Barrios, true to flamenco’s roots, also ignores prettiness and goes for the grit. In “Siguiriya,” she rules by virtue of a strange energy that often bends her limbs and torso in ungainly ways. The icy sound of her shoe swiping the floor can give you goose bumps, and the boom of her beats arises as much from a sturdy soul as from sturdy soles. Eyes closed, she extends her splayed hands as if dowsing for our nerves. Surrounded by the singers, she trots into the gleam of the floor light, hovers there, dares it, turns aside, and whips back around, outshining the electrical device with the fire of flamenco.

There’s lots shaking up in Hunts Point where the Bronx Museum of the Arts has partnered with community-based organizations to offer Action Lab 2006, a professional development series for teachers and youth featuring artist residencies and presentations. An informal showing at The Point Theater introduced participating students and resident artists included: a promising work-in-progress for the young members of South Bronx Aerial Dance, choreographed by Teresa Kochis and Elise Knudson; personal narratives by Jule Jo Ramirez’s LGBT Youth Project; and an interpretive theater piece about prison life by Erin Dunlevy’s group, Eighteen and Under. Visit Action Lab on Saturday, June 17 at the Hunts Point Summer Festival. 718-681-6000 ext. 132, bronxmuseum.org, or thepoint.org.