Tradition is alive and thriving in the art of Paco Peña, the celebrated guitarist who presented his troupe of Spanish dancers and musicians in a splendid program at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown on Thursday. In this scaled-down version of “Flamencura,” a show that made its debut last year, Peña brushes aside the conflict between antique and modern.
Arguing that the essence of flamenco is timeless, Peña imagines “flamencura” (a made-up word) as the place in a circle where past and future meet. Employing full-throated “cantaores” singing in the dialect of their native Andalucía, and sinuous dancers steeped in rhythm, this show serves up flamenco with all the trimmings. Yet given Peña’s own restlessness and gift for improvisation, nostalgia merely spurs his creativity.
A spotlight shines on a colorful silk shawl draped over a chair, as the opening scene of “Flamencura” takes us to the province of Málaga, home of the folk-dance style known as “Verdiales.” The music, at first, is taped, suggesting a historic field recording. Yet live musicians and dancers step forward to pick up the thread, proving these “Verdiales” are still young and juicy. This frolicsome opening introduces the performers, notably dancers Yolanda Osuna and Ángel Muñoz, who throughout the evening will perform choreography devised by Muñoz, Fernando Romero and Carmen “La Talegona,” one of the original interpreters.
Osuna devours this material, revealing a wonderful musicality. While her carriage is elegant and her technique reliable, it is her “ear” that allows this award-winning dancer from Córdoba to move freely and instinctively, whether hiking her skirt and stamping her heels, twisting unexpectedly or luxuriating in a moment of calm as she lowers her arms gracefully. Osuna is so sure of the rhythm that even the flare of her skirt seems perfectly timed, an effect that anticipates the fireworks when, in the second act, she dons the ruffled dress known as “bata de cola.”
It seems likely that Peña hired Osuna precisely for this sensitivity. His guitar solo, following the opener, reveals that music is the expressive soul of “Flamencura.” Where the “Verdiales” were bright, Peña’s playing begins darkly. Powerful chords create a somber atmosphere; and we seem to witness a religious procession accompanied by the tinkle of a bell. Yet Peña coaxes many sounds and images from his guitar. He digresses, producing a long and flourishing melody that seems to change the light. Caressing the strings, he summons different hours of the day — sounding shadowy and cool or blinded by the midday sun. Flowers bloom in the heat of this music. After producing a string of exquisite effects, however, he ends quietly on a note of doubt.
Two dance solos follow, both high-strung. While Muñoz restrains himself, trembling, until he seems ready to burst, Osuna charges in altering her speed and direction, full of surprises. The first act concludes with a curious staging of “La Petenera” that begins with Muñoz sunk on a chair. Osuna enters veiled, and after a duet that sees these lovers unified or dancing out of each other’s grasp, she uses the veil to smother him.
The second act begins with a “Farruca” that is anything but typical. Theoretically a showcase for Muñoz, it is, in reality, a duet for dancer and guitarist; and Muñoz acknowledges as much by touching Peña’s shoulder at the beginning and the end. After stating the theme, the musician ranges far afield, and the result is a piece of unusual rhythmic subtlety and gentleness that departs from the usual emphasis on a male dancer’s taut silhouette.
Osuna’s flamboyant “Alegrías-Cantiñas” contrasts with this meditative number, giving her the opportunity to demonstrate her shawl-work and her mastery of the “bata” with the ruffled train. She tosses the shawl expertly, manufacturing waves and spirals out of flying fringe. When she begins to spin, the train of her dress follows her helplessly tracing a circle on the floor. Osuna watches it chase her, and when she tires of it she simply kicks the ruffles out of the way. Did we mention that these coordinated movements of body and costume are impeccably timed?
Making an indispensable contribution, the musical ensemble in “Flamencura” features singers Inmaculada Rivero and Bernardo Miranda Luna belting out the most tragic lyrics (“How can I feel so alone, with your body so near?”). Ignacio López plays cajón, with Francisco Arriaga and Rafael Montilla accompanying Peña on guitar.