Posted on August 29, 2019
Ballet Nacional de España’s (BNE) final performance under the artistic leadership of Antonio Najarro took place on August 1 in Barcelona’s opera house, the Liceu, in a double bill reprised from 2015. It was emblematic of his eight-year tenure: both looking back to the rich history of Spanish dance and presenting a prime example of Najarro’s own idiosyncratic brand of spectacular, vivacious dance theatre.
The opening work, Zaguán, may have been created in 2015 but stylistically could have come from decades before. It resembled a Gala Flamenca in its patchwork, mix-and-match sequences of choreography created by some of the great flamenco dancers of recent years: an opening siguiriya and toná by Marco Flores, followed by Mercedes Ruiz’s vibrant Cantiñas de Córdoba; more dances from Flores then led to a narrative-based section by La Lupi and a crowd-pleasing soleá de mantón by Blanca del Rey, one of the finest exponents of that shawl-twirling art. The exuberant finale, titled Aire del Recuerdo (Air of Remembrance), created by all four choreographers working together, was in true Gala Flamenca style. The consistent theme across these otherwise disparate numbers was the ebullient music of flamenco guitarist, Jesús Torres. The traditional costumes were designed by Yaisa Pinillos, and the set – which resembled a courtyard outside an apartment block – had distant lights inside going on and off, evoking the passage of an evening. In keeping with this notion of domesticity, Zaguán means “hallway”.
Pictured: Ballet Nacional de España in Alento. Photographs by Maria Alperi, Juan Diego Castillo and Jesús Vallinas.
Although intensely theatrical, I was taken by the references to the street as the tablao. One man’s solo would be called out of the group, as if in a b-boy battle, encouraged and inspired by the handclapping and exclamations of the people that formed a semi-circle behind him. Zaguán is a company work – and virtually the whole company danced in it – hallmarked by the outstanding uniformity of the ensemble and studded by three gems: the elegant, sinuous and proud Sara Arévalo and Eduardo Martínez in Cantiñas de Córdoba; a stunning, harmonious male quintet in Puerto Caimán, Guajira y Milonga; and, as the centrepiece, Esther Jurado’s glorious and commanding interpretation of soleá de mantón (Del Rey had performed the dance herself at the premiere). Dancing with a stunning, long-tasselled shawl, swirling the “small carpet” through the air and wrapping it around her body in every possible configuration, this was a performance of outstanding dexterity and coordination.
Najarro’s own choreography for Alento was spectacular – flamenco meets Broadway on a trip to Las Vegas. He is a showman (his directorial flair shares some of Matthew Bourne’s theatrical intuition), and his work had colourful, constantly-changing costumes (by Teresa Helbig), an exciting, driving musical theatre score, dances full of surprises (how about a duet danced whilst enveloped in a huge swathe of silk, as wide as the stage), and a memorable climax guaranteed to bring an enraptured audience to its feet. Alento, which means “encouragement”, had the lot. The music was so good I was humming Fernando Egozcue’s score all the way back home to London.
Pictured: Ballet Nacional de España in Zaguán. Photographs by Fernando Marcos, James Rajotte and Jesús Vallinas.
Google Najarro and his most prominent credit is as a figure skating choreographer (his skaters have won Olympic Gold), and this capacity to command the attention of judges in a five-minute routine is also captured in a gorgeously romantic pas de deux that was danced with arresting passion by Aloña Alonso and Sergio Bernal. It could also be seen in a striking solo by Immaculada Salomón, wearing a stunning bata de cola (a dress with long train). Nonetheless, the consistent strength of Alento was the kaleidoscopic use of space for the large corps of dancers, and the fluidity of their harmonious, synchronised movement. Najarro’s choreography also suggests the enduring work of Busby Berkeley. His successor, Rubén Olmo, a former BNE dancer who has been artistic director of Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía, takes up office on September 1; he has a tough act to follow.