Maria Benitez Teatro Flamenco

at Park West, November 18 and 19

Dancers run a race with time they know they’ll lose. While technique, their emotional maturity, musical sophistication, and confidence are growing, their physical stamina, flexibility, and strength are draining away. Perhaps this race is nowhere more desperate than in flamenco, where the technique is so difficult and the physical demands are so great. I’ve seen senior-citizen tap dancers who’ve slowed down but retain their subtlety and sophistication; I’ve seen Baryshnikov turn to less demanding forms than ballet and retain his emotional expression. But I’m not sure this kind of compensation is possible with flamenco, a hot-dog form if ever there was one.

And hotdog it Maria Benitez Teatro Flamenco did at the Park West, their final appearances in a month-long tour, primarily of the east and west coasts. A company of internationally known musicians and dancers based in Santa Fe, they performed a two-hour program of eight dances with energy and finesse. But the frantic race with time seemed to hover over them, perhaps in part because one of the pieces, a moody dramatic vignette called Aires de silencio, addresses aging and loss.

In this dance Maria Benitez is at first a stiff-backed, grim authority figure, seated motionless center stage while two subdued younger women (Ramona Garduno and Sara de la Pena) languish in chairs off to either side. They seem cowed by her, but when she leaves they flirt with a young man (Alfonso Simo Rodriguez); all three exit quickly when she returns. The focus of the dance is Benitez’s solo, in which she clearly mourns a lost lover (Alejandro Granados) and perhaps the loss of her youth. Benitez is an arresting figure, slim with huge, powerful hands and broad masklike face, small eyes, winged cheekbones, and wide, full mouth. Following the curves of her body with her hands, then letting her contorted fingers flow over her face, she’s the picture of agony and loss.

Flamenco offers a study in contrasts. Amazing stillness is sustained by incredible speed. Male and female coexist in a single body: the legs driving into the floor are hard, almost masculine, but the pronounced curves in the torso and the delicately curling fingers are feminine. Even the liquidity of the upper body is something of an illusion–it has nothing to do with genuine relaxation and everything to do with extreme muscular tension, which sustains the poses and drives the movement. It’s as if the dancer–the good one, anyway–has been poured into some mold, then breaks it. Despite the tension in her body, she must be able to move with a hummingbird’s speed and turn on a dime. Presentation is crucial: a frontal view, feet stamping, is so direct it almost overwhelms; a profile view is coy, preparatory; and a three-quarters view emphasizes the body’s angles, its diagonal lines, and the essential dynamism of the form.

But despite flamenco’s challenging technique, technique isn’t really the point. The point is transport. And transport is hard to come by because it’s both willed and unwilled, a state the dancer labors toward but can’t achieve with mere labor. All the performers here seemed transported, each in his or her own way. To de la Pena it came quickly, lightly, as an outgrowth of her youth and energy; to Garduno, it came with some calculation, elegantly and efficiently. For the youthful Rodriguez, it was a matter of wilfully producing, then controlling gusts of energy; sometimes he stayed on course, sometimes not. For the accomplished Granados, it was something he worked toward with confidence, then displayed with almost humorous panache. The sinuous Benitez was woeful, predatory, angry, and utterly strange in Aires de silencio; if she wasn’t transported, she seemed so. But in her Solea por bulerias, passion, inspiration, did not come, and her grimaces were ghastly to see.

Next Dance Festival

at the Athenaeum Theatre, through November 27

Breeding tells, they say. And maybe especially in dance. Those lucky enough to be trained early in a form, the way Benitez and her dancers have been, keep it in their bones their whole lives. But those who try to learn a technique late or switch techniques are often out of luck. On the first weekend of the new Next Dance Festival at the Athenaeum Theatre, the local Soul & Duende Spanish American Dance Theatre ran head-on into that truth.

Their Flamenco Mingus, choreographed by Azucena Vega, fuses traditional flamenco steps and music with modern dance, Afro-Caribbean drumming, jazz, and blues–with uneven results. The traditional flamenco here–with the exception of the dancing by Vega herself, who’s had many years of experience–just couldn’t stand up to comparison with the dancing by Maria Benitez and her troupe. Though in many individual cases competent, overall the performances by Soul & Duende lacked passion, definition, and control. Even when Vega stood up from her chair clicking her castanets with great speed and drama, and the forecast for expert dancing seemed good, the section devolved into an abortive duet with Tomas de Utrera’s jazz saxophone (a later, similar section worked better. And it was positively painful to see a wonderful modern dancer like Margaret Reynolds, who did a bang-up job in Christy Munch’s dances on this program, trying to do flamenco: instead of reproducing its snakelike, seductive curves, her body maintained the clean, straight-arrow lines I’m sure she’s spent a lifetime perfecting.

The other dances were by two independent modern-dance choreographers. Paula Frasz has a background in theatrical dance–musicals, operas, operettas–and it shows. The Mood Swing, not surprisingly, details sudden emotional shifts in three people whose moods definitely affect the others, while the humorous Skin Deep is meant to get women out from under the burden of beauty, though it’s way too obvious to be successful. Only Eater of Hearts, a solo for Frank Fishella, has any subtlety: he’s wonderfully fluid in this enigmatic piece.

Munch is also a costume designer, a good one, and her visual sense serves her well in the pieces on this program, two of which I’d seen before. On the Athenaeum stage Hot Dry Blue and Landscape of Destruction were more epic than at Link’s Hall; you could see their formal qualities better. Munch works hard to establish mood, and a larger stage can be an advantage. This performance of Landscape of Destruction gave me an even stronger sense than before of the world she’s trying to evoke–a hostile, competitive place in which most everything has been used up–and of the seven female dancers as fragile Amazons.

But Munch’s new piece, Black Turtle (subtitled “Thoughts on Galapagos Islands”), almost seems better suited to an intimate space like Link’s: in this gentle, matter-of-fact piece, three women lift, carry, ride piggyback, sit, and lie on each other, all in the friendliest manner. I especially liked the no-nonsense way Kay Wendt-LaSota pulled another woman’s aimlessly waving arms (a motif that recalls turtles on their backs) back to earth. Given the title, the piece perhaps suggests a small community too gentle to survive, or to survive anywhere but in a protected environment. At any rate the steel-drum music is an inspired choice, especially when the three dancers form a tight-knit conga line and sway gently together, hip to hip, knee to knee, in a magical expression of cohesion.

The Next Dance Festival continues this weekend with a different program, of works by Claire Bataille, Ginger Farley, Anthony Gongora, and Winifred Haun.