Someone forgot to light the match under “Flamenco Fire,” the touring program that the Compañía Flamenca José Porcel brought to the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood on Oct. 22. The show went on, as shows must do, with barrages of stamping and the usual hoarse cries and strumming of guitars. Jets of smoke fogged the air on cue. Lights dyed the stage red.
Despite these signs of a barbecue, however, the company served only a cold platter of clichés. Porcel, an Andalusian by birth and a former member of Spain’s national ballet, is not trying to shake things up. With his own sweaty solo as the focal point, he has arranged an unimaginative suite of dances set to (mostly) traditional flamenco rhythms.
With six musicians and their platform taking up room at back, the BergenPAC stage seems cramped. Perhaps space limitations can explain the static quality of the opening ensemble, “Seguiriya,” which becomes the stand-and-deliver model for much of what follows. Still, flamenco is not known for its traveling steps. Tight spaces, like the table-top that appears in the concluding number of “Flamenco Fire,” are the norm. Porcel’s company is also not huge. Only a handful of dancers complement the musicians. What’s lacking is choreographic invention.
Things pick up in the “Alegrías,” a duet focusing on the supposed attraction between Porcel and his unnamed partner. (Only the star of “Flamenco Fire” gets billing, an oversight that does not speak well of him.) Stationed at opposite sides of the proscenium, he reaches for her and she reaches for him with a hand that curls and twists. Coming together in the center, he towers over her but she does not shrink. She frisks and flounces, escaping from him and turning to mark the rhythm with a repeated, open-palmed gesture. Lifting her skirts, she plants one foot on the floor in a challenge. Porcel grimaces and spins, but he’s off-balance; and he sacrifices clarity to achieve a contorted line whose emotional value doesn’t seem worth the effort.
Not for the last time this evening, the (uncredited) flautist adds jazzy flights to the mix of guitar and percussion. While non-traditional, the style recalls Bolling and Rampal jamming in the 1970s, a sound so conventional now that it might as well be elevator music.
The ensuing “Guajiras” are strictly routine. In this hard-edged dance of seduction, the women of the company slap their fans or twirl them; and the choreography follows a winding path. During a musical interlude, the (uncredited) female vocalist steps forward, pitching her song of bitter regret straight into the front row of the audience.
In the second half, the “Farruca” showcases the ensemble men; but, since there are only two of them, Porcel’s (still uncredited) partner from the “Alegrías” has to pull on a pair of pants and a man’s jacket to make up the trio. While Carmen Amaya may have approved, this seems like a hasty solution to a problem backstage. Is someone ill? Still, one of the lads (the skinny one, with dark curly hair) steps forward to save the number with an impassioned solo, his abrupt, stylized movements snarling with energy.
Any dance performed in the hour-glass dress with frothy train known as the “bata de cola” has a taut self-possession that automatically lends it form. In the “Rondeña,” the women revolve deliriously, kicking the trains of their “batas” aside. They arch their figures in deep backbends, trill with castanets, and — like too many episodes in “Flamenco Fire” — they end the number in an attitude of proud defiance.
This leaves only Porcel’s solo, and the carefree “Bulerías.” He begins in silence, making sure we pay attention to the tap, tap, tap of his foot and the snap, snap, snap of his fingers — yet even this teasing opener fails to magnetize. Whether scrunching his shoulders and twisting, or drawing himself up on tip-toe, his long body tracing an arc like a bow, Porcel’s dancing feels cold and absent-minded. He removes his jacket and tie and thrusts his hips forward, titillating the crowd. Then he begins, mechanically, to drill the floor, putting everything into the “zapateado” that will be his make-or-break statement.
It’s okay, but don’t trip over yourself in a rush to get there. Something better will come along.
The Compañía Flamenca José Porcel appears at the State Theatre in New Brunswick on Oct. 30. Visit statetheatrenj.org.
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