Sadler’s Wells, London
June 21, 2022
We had been promised something new and refreshing for this long-awaited Flamenco Festival, and in ¡Viva! by Manuel Liñán we certainly got it. The audience numbers may be down from previous years (I suspect Brexit and Covid-19 means that many Spanish have left London, and on this evening there was the rail and tube strike too), but the level of enthusiasm for flamenco remains just as high.
¡Viva! may in close up (and perhaps at medium range) look like Les Trocks, but it mostly avoids their broad-brush approach. It has its chico moments and is more than backwards in high heels; it was upside down and sideways in heels too. Literally.
The show is a real examination of flamenco form and the way that, in a very traditional society, gender and sexuality are reflected. The men truly embody the dance without ever straying into the parody that marks the grotesque representations of women engendered in drag. At the same time, the dance is terrific.
Good flamenco seems really to speak to our troubled times. It can be introspective and then throw care to the wind in an explosive release of deep emotions. The cante from David Carpio and Antonio Campos hit hard from the beginning; raw, emotive and centred around the female. At times it was difficult to believe that Francisco Vinuesa was the sole guitarist – he seemed like an entire section. Likewise, Victor Guadiana on violin achieved the perfect blend – not always the case when other instruments are used – and surprised with Bach, which worked extremely well.
These men can dance everything, like Carlos Saura’s image to Sevillanas, performed en pointe, which gives a ‘flamenco eats ballet’ moment with stunning castanet technique (as impressive when softly and subtly played as when rapped out competitively) when fast and furious playing is whipped off with foueteés no less.
Not surprisingly, it was the zapateado that really stunned. Powerful and executed with absolute clarity as well as speed, the stamina required amazed. Soft hands in filigrana are contrasted with machine-gun feet in perfect compas.
Costumes are squarely traditional and used to underline the sexuality that is revealed under the 19th-century covers. Sometimes it is overt and often teasing and subtle or joking (what is hiding under there?). But it is the bata de cola that has the real wow factor: not one dancer but all seven. It is hard enough not to get tangled up in your own tail never mind not tread on six others. Perhaps the ultimate expression of femininity, here it spoke volumes, never mind the mastery of technique that is required to dance with the mantoncillos – patting the head and rubbing the stomach indeed. The removal of the dress to leave one dancer moving with it held against his body was expressive and deeply moving, speaking volumes without words.
At the end, the cast appeared in flesh coloured leotards, suggestive of androgyny, like so many Barbies that gradually reverted to Ken. As they broke the fourth wall, stripping off their make up, the lump welled up in the throat while the brain whirred with questions about what flamenco is and maybe can be. Curtain calls taken in skimpy dressing gowns provided a Brechtian moment for further reflection as well as well-earned acclaim.