by Lorena Sandra, January 3 2012

In November 2011, World Music Institute once again enticed New Yorkers to indulge in a whiff of Spain with two concerts featuring flamenco artists, singer Diego El Cigala, and dancer, Jose Maya.  Both are of the new generation of flamenco performers, and both are interested in stretching beyond the traditional while nonetheless relying heavily on their heritage and roots.


El Cigala performed at Town Hall on November 1st with a company that consisted of Jaime Calabuig “Jumitus” on piano, Yelsy Heredia on bass, Diego Del Morao on guitar, Bernardo Parrilla on violin, and Sabu Suarez on percussion. These are all excellent musicians, and no doubt would be inspirational jazz artists, were they given the freedom to let loose in that idiom.  In this instance, they are part of a tightly packaged popular show that is held together by the firm hand of El Cigala.

Indeed, the long, lean expressive hands adorned with gold are one of the seductive attributes of El Cigala, along with the somewhat raspy, throaty flamenco voice that manages to sound both sweet and hard, but never harsh.  Most attractive as well are his long lean figure dressed in a black sharkskin suit, his long black hair, and his self contained presence that moves very little but conveys a sense of great inner power and concentration.  This last is a particularly flamenco quality, and to my mind, El Cigala was at his best when he sang three flamenco songs, the first one with guitar, which was then joined by the percussionist on the cahon (box drum), the second an incredibly nuanced solea with a beautifully ornate, but subdued and never flashy, guitar, and the third a flamenco tangos that also grew in intensity and excitement.

However, these numbers were just a small fraction of a show that focused primarily on the Argentine tango, with some rumbas and bolero rhythms thrown in. These continuous syncopated rhythms didn’t offer much variation, and had the effect of making many of the songs, some very traditional, such as “El Dia Que Me Quieres,” lose their individuality and sentiment.  Yet El Cigala has become a greatly loved singer; the audience clapped as soon as they heard the opening notes of a familiar song. Spontaneity, or at least the aura of it, was rarely experienced. It felt as if the musicians were bursting to move beyond the confines imposed by their leader, even as he himself was hampered by holding the reins a bit too tightly. The evening was lively, but repetitive.

The same could be said of the Jose Maya Company which appeared at the NYU Skirball Center later in the week, on November 5th. Jose Maya is an excellent flamenco dancer who is an exponent of demonstrating how this art form and its attendant Spanish gypsy culture can fit into our contemporary world, without losing its base and ideals of community and participation.  He does this with the support of his wonderful musicians and singers (Spain seems to have an endless supply of these), including Jesus de Rosario on guitar, Rubio de Pruna and Saul Quiroz on vocals, and Lucky Losada on percussion.  Jose’s wife, Alejandra Hernandez, also a dancer, added a very welcome note of womanly femininity.

Indeed, the number in which she danced, the very first, was in many respects the most interesting, perhaps because it most embodied communality and ensemble participation. It introduced and utilized all the cast members more or less equally, without being a showcase for an individual artist.  Called “Mesa” (“Table”), it employed the fairly traditional flamenco device of having a table serve as the rhythmic soundboard around which people gather to sing, dance, and make music by tapping it and rapping it with fists and knuckles, and clapping in complex rhythms. After a time, Alejandra separated from the group around the table and danced a short bulerias that was all together powerful, charming, and fun. Technically precise, she was a swift and strong, round though slender, ball of energy. Then Jose danced and immediately conveyed his personal style and energy—which elicited resounding applause and enthusiasm from just about every viewer.

His concentration of energy is similar to hers, but in more masculine form—his changes of direction are extra sharp, his feet extra powerful, and his bursts of rhythmic movement are electrifying, transmitting tension and excitement immediately to the audience.  His talent and projection managed to conquer the large and theatrical Skirball space. In addition, he has a personal characteristic stance, with the upper half of his body leaning forward at about 30 degrees over quite straight legs. He assumes this position especially in his walks around the stage, before he launches into speedy and complicated footwork. He resembles some unusual giant bird about to take off on a journey whose destination is known only to the performer. Individuality is greatly appreciated in flamenco, and Jose’s look and style are quite distinctive.

However, his particular drama, as well as other flamenco manners, or perhaps, mannerisms, such as loosening his hair and partially removing his jacket while dancing, are repeated often in his show, no matter what the palo, or dance.  In his three solos, the first pushing tradition by liberally mixing the music of solea por buleria and alegrias (and possibly others which I couldn’t identify), the second a seguiriya, and the third a solea, each of these effects appeared, and also some favorite patterns of steps, including a repeated jump.  Despite costume changes, the quality or character of expression for all three pieces was similar.

Of them, the most outstanding was the seguiriya, a serious palo that began with a song duet.  This had a forceful, sad, Hebraic quality and shortly the singers were joined by the guitar which sounded very sweet in comparison.  Jose then entered in a silver suit, and danced with very minimal and controlled movements to the song.  It contrasted well with the firecracker bursts of fast footwork that followed. Like most contemporary flamenco dancers, he completes a footwork variation, then walks rather casually to another place on the stage and begins again. This practice doesn’t exactly break the mood, but it doesn’t enhance it either. My impression is that this dancer appears to be so capable of maintaining and deepening the mood and dance quality of the piece, that I wish he would focus more on it. However, it must be said that this soulful quality would have been enhanced had the presentation been able to include some lighting effects.

The dancing was interspersed with musical numbers, including guitar and vocal solos, a terrific percussion solo to a rumba rhythm that was joined by guitar and palmas (clapping).  The show ended delightfully with all joining in for a final song and dance, including musicians and singers.