Dancing most of the time to taped symphonic music, revelling in driving, flamenco-style heelwork executed by dozens of corps members in unison and exploiting non-stop emoting-for-approval by its principals, the Royal Spanish National Ballet brought to the Greek Theatre on Tuesday everything impuro in the updating and theatricalization of a unique cultural heritage.
From the trumped-up intensity and spliced-in ballet steps of Jose Granero's solo "Alborada del Gracioso" to the Radio-City bombast of Alberto Lorca's formal group sorties in "Ritmos," the company (previously known to local audiences as Ballet Nacional Espanol) ceaselessly merchandised the heat and glamour of Spanish dancing. Even its multi-choreographer "Flamenco" suite (to passionate live accompaniment) represented a venture in high-pressure salesmanship. Classic Spanish dance skills--especially pliancy of back and dynamic variety in heelwork--were in as short supply as integrity and soul.
Nevertheless, the Spaniards ultimately triumphed where recent visiting ensembles from China, Colombia and Soviet Georgia (all anxious to make folk dance contemporary) had utterly failed.
In Granero's "Medea" (which occupied half the program) it offered potent dance-drama that managed to adapt folkloric elements without falsification. Moreover, in guest artist Merche Esmeralda it displayed a star with more than mere flamboyance at her disposal.
Set against eroding arches (by Andrea d'Odorico) that evoked both an imperial past and a pitiless present, "Medea" replayed the events of the ancient Greek tragedy in the timeless Spanish landscape of Garcia Lorca, Bunuel and Gades.
In the process, the central characters lost mythic stature but gained a new immediacy: Jason the opportunist (Jose Antonio), Creon the town boss (Juan Mata), Medea the woman scorned (Esmeralda).
Granero animated these characters by using the flamenco movement vocabulary--but not flamenco dance-structure--combined with realistic gesture. Sometimes the result proved clever rather than imaginative and his best ideas frequently misfired when danced to the lush orchestral inanities provided by Manolo Sanlucar.
But whenever Granero concentrated on Medea as the abandoned outsider, consumed by revenge, everything somehow fell into place.
Although Esmeralda's performance looked spotty on Tuesday--weakened by facile and even a few faked transitions--there were also long, magnificent passages where she embodied every facet the role has ever had, plus a Gypsy ferocity all her own. Alternately agonized, imploring, lustful, tender, frightened, proud, triumphant and remorseful, she also retained a dimension of mystery, the sense of secret powers from another place and time.
In one of his more peculiar inventions, Granero objectified these arcane aspects of Medea's character in the figures of two bare-chested, skirted male "spirits" responsible for most of her vengeance. (They knifed her two children, for instance.)
Besides looking like refugees from a neo-Expressionist extravaganza by Maurice Bejart, they made Medea's destructive retaliation as much an expression of masculine will as the cruelty of Jason or Creon. Since "Medea" has always been a parable of womens' power, it is bizarre to find men pulling all the strings in this version.
Still, "Medea" not only deserved consideration as a distinctive national expression of one of Western culture's masterworks, but on Tuesday it inspired performances of maximum artistry from principals who had looked highly limited earlier in the evening.
Antonio's Jason, for example, had a sensuality and conviction infinitely superior to the empty rant of his performance in "Alborada del Gracioso" and his energetic but unmodulated "Flamenco" dancing.
Mata, too, had looked versatile but bland in "Ritmos" (the subdued duet opposite a stolid Ana Gonzalez) and "Flamenco" (the bravura trio with Antonio Marquez and Joaquin Cortes) but "Medea" found him magnetic and forceful, an imposing dancing actor.
As Creusa and in the "Flamenco" opening and closing sequences, Maribel Gallardo revealed a great mobility of torso plus a weightless sharpness of articulation that even Esmeralda could not match in her crowd-pleasing "Flamenco" showpiece solo.
Indeed, Gallardo was the only woman Tuesday to approach heelwork with a distinctively feminine attack.
In contrast, her colleagues invariably punched out the steps in what seemed a dogged attempt to match the men's force (impossible if only because of the difference in weight--and shoes). If the masculinization of "Medea" became one of the evening's puzzles, the masculinization of Spanish dance technique may have been far more damaging.