Sunday, November 6, 2011

José Maya at Skirball

It's rare for me to abandon a show at intermission, even if I'm not having a good time. Last night, as I grappled with a tenacious respiratory infection, I decided to bail out on José Maya and Company midway--partly due to physical discomfort and partly because I was still waiting to be blown away by the man repeatedly described as "one of the most explosive dancers in Spain today."

I've seen enough flamenco in New York, among enough flamenco audiences, to recognize that almost every flavor and approach to the art can find an enthusiastic niche audience here. The folks gathered at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts for World Music Institute's ¡Festival Flamenco Gitano! certainly seemed wowed by Maya and receptive to what I found to be a fair-to-middling production padded out with lengthy, if undistinguished, music and vocal segments. WMI has brought far better.

Much is made of the fact that Maya has opened for the likes of Marc Anthony, Beyoncé and Björk. Think about that for a moment. He really does belong in the world of pop and not in the world where, as you keep digging beneath the surface of a dancer's moves, you find true grit.

I had high hopes for the evening--called Red, after the gitano word for network, or community, and the color of life and survival. It opened with simple, but marvelous, staging--the performers clustered downstage around a small, wooden table, rapping out intricate, rolling flamenco rhythms with their fingers, knuckles and palms. Gorgeous sounds!

I also wanted to like Maya as he initially took minced sideways, dashed in a few pivots and slow burns, and whipped off legwork so rapid and evanescent--a flurry, a thrust--that it seemed something I might have imagined not seen. But, unfortunately, the man went on to rely too much on his loosened, flowing hair, a tomato-red suit, and zapateado that seems disconnected from his body, which is engaged in its own showy, rock star thing. His overplayed footwork drama reminded me of how a few of my college students referred to flamenco footwork as "tapping" until I corrected them. What he's doing really does seem more like tap, but you can definitely find tap with more duende, more soul, than this.

As usual, World Music Institute has a dizzying array of programs coming up over the next several months. Today's Skirball-hosted Water is Rising: Music and Dance Amid Climate Change (where "performance and purpose collide") sounds great as do shows by the magnificent singer Lila Downs (November 15) and legendary composer-guitarist Paco Peña (March 31), both at Carnegie Hall. Whether you're in love with Celtic ballads, Cape Verdean morna, the music of the Sufis or the Garifuna, or pretty much anything your ears can imagine, WMI has something for you. Click here for complete details on WMI's 2011-2012 season.

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