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This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on June 23, 2006.

June 23 (Bloomberg) — Flamenco is intimate, essentially tragic. Practitioners have been trying forever to theatricalize the form for the commercial stage. But Rafael Amargo, a celebrated performer-director in his native Spain, may be the first to use flamenco as the backbone of an entertainment that falls between vaudeville and musical comedy.

His 2002 “Poeta en Nueva York,” given the first of two performances at New York City Center last night, advertises itself as a multimedia production. It felt like an Andalusian “Riverdance.”

The work is based on vivid, hallucinatory poems written by Federico Garcia Lorca during a fraught year he spent in the city. They’re recited on tape, in Spanish, no translation provided. Hyperactive, arty film projections constitute the scenery.

Live and loud (the miking terrorizes the eardrums), three red-hot-mama vocalists, incidental musicians and a gang of dancers whose zapateado — that stamping and tapping of heels — means business deliver a stream of vignettes. Not surprisingly, these run the gamut of the gaudier emotions.

The choreography, equally punched up, could be called fusion-flamenco. It borrows from ballet, jazz, folk dance and show-biz tactics like the chorus line.

Amargo, of course, is the show’s dancing star. He has a face straight out of Goya and a maverick stage persona. Like an outrageous youth who mixes daring with charm, he doesn’t hesitate to milk the audience for its affection.

Superficial Star

He’s reputed to be a flamenco adept, and his footwork is indeed pyrotechnical. But his belly (which he bares) is slack, and his thighs lack animation. The deeper aspects of flamenco elude him.

A guest artist, Rasta Thomas, appeared in a brief solo, offsetting his bravura ballet feats with a few moves from his martial-arts training. American Ballet Theatre’s Angel Corella, though slated for a guest slot, wasn’t able to participate.

Nevertheless, the show went on for over two hours without intermission.

Far closer to the real thing is Noche Flamenca, where Soledad Barrio’s dancing offers a crash course in life’s passions and pain.

On the small, naked stage of a low-end theater in Manhattan’s East Village, beneath a grid of exposed lights, Barrio holds the midsection of her chunky body quiet while her feet attack the floor like a fusillade of bullets.

Her arms lash the air around her head, angled wrists and spiky fingers making a moving crown of thorns. Whirling in place, she becomes a vortex.

Face of Feelings

Soon she’s moving as if in a trance, mining a mother lode of human experience and emotions. Her discoveries play across her face, which has the square shape and blunt power of a Mayan mask, at once ravaging it and making it beautiful.

Barrio is ably accompanied by a pair of guitarists, three vocalists and two male dancers. Alejandro Granados, with whom she performs a duet combining seduction and challenge, shares her understanding of flamenco as a means of revealing the soul.

Granados’s long solo on the program is daring in its subtlety. Despite some emphatic passages, it’s unusually laconic, as if the dancer were conducting a probing conversation with himself. Moments of complete stillness register as pauses for contemplation.

Performed by Granados, commonplace flamenco devices take on startling associations. This is an artist who removes his suit jacket and makes you see a snake shedding its skin.

Juan Ogalla, by contrast, is a show-offy dancer out to impress with bravura technique.

Haughty Pose

He tramples the floor so ferociously with his booted feet that his legs seem to vibrate. And when he faces the musicians and slowly raises his arms as if they were an eagle’s wings, his version of the flamenco posture speaks more of arrogance than pride.

Turning on a dime, he snaps his head around military style. Even the sweat that sprays out of his long curly hair seems to be part of his act.

He misses the point that Barrio seems born to convey: Flamenco is not merely about what you can do. At heart, it’s about what you are.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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