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Two Flamenco divas, two kinds of showmanship

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Flamenco superstar Sara Baras from Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras performs a scene from "Shadows (Sombras) during heir opening night at the City Center on March 7, 2019, during the 2019 New York City Center’s Flamenco Festival.

[NEW YORK] Sara Baras and Soledad Barrio are flamenco stars. Spanish-born and of a similar age (either side of 50), both lead troupes with their names in the title. And there, as performances in New York this weekend demonstrated, the similarities end.

"Shadows," which Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras performed at New York City Center as part of the Flamenco Festival, is like a concert by a pop diva. Besides Baras, there are six dancers and an excellent band. But they are all clearly backup, and the bits the dancers have to themselves, as a group, seem to function mostly as opportunities for Baras to change her costume.

Oh, those costumes. Baras doesn't settle for the traditional contrast between pants for some numbers and a long-tailed dress and immense shawl for others. Her outfits go further, with changing set designs to match. When she spins, layers of fabric or fringe fly outward and separate, turning her figure into a whirlwind.

It's a striking visual effect in a visually impressive show. Another effect, involving dozens of angled streams of light, as if from a fancy showerhead, elicited "oohs" from the audience Friday. The shadow concept is a visual one, played on many scrims, with many silhouettes. As when Baras in red is flanked by two women in black, the idea is often to multiply her.

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She is also amplified, her footwork — her trademark — boosted to arena-level volumes. Her ultra-rapid barrages sound as if they could break through concrete. It is an extremely narrow and unvaried technique, like the Evita-style arm-raises that also recur, and the excitement of it quickly palls.

Baras appeared to be enjoying herself Friday, reveling and loosening in the adoration of her audience. And if what she presented is far from what I want from flamenco, that's partly because my desires have been shaped by years of watching Barrio and her company, Noche Flamenca.

The Connelly Theater in the East Village, where Noche Flamenca is performing its new show through March 31, is small and on the seedy side with a neighborhood feel. The visual design is no more elaborate than cafe chairs and a spotlight. The wonderful musicians and the dancers' feet are barely amplified. That's all in accord with the company aesthetic: bare bones, nothing to hide behind, nothing to get in the way.

The new work on the program is a version of an idea, based on Arthur Schnitzler's "La Ronde," that the company has been messing with for a few years. The current iteration, featuring an awkwardly executed experiment in lesbian eroticism, has lost dramatic coherence, but it still succeeds as a variety show. There is more rhythmic variety in 30 seconds of David Rodriguez's castanet solo than there is in the whole hour and 45 minutes of "Shadows."

Barrio appears as first among equals. The other dancers — Antonio Rodriguez (mature, rough-edged, spontaneous), Marina Elana (young, sultry, free), Jasiel Nahin (flashy, cute and doesn't he know it) — don't just get chances to shine. They get space to think and be, to lose a thread and pick it back up. In her show Baras is the hub through which everything passes; in Noche Flamenca, the dancers and musicians connect with Barrio, but also with one another, independently.

After intermission, Barrio doesn't appear at all until her final solo. This, of course, is the moment everyone has been waiting for, and throughout it, she makes you wait some more. As the singers wail, she stays still or walks in slow circles around herself, holding back. When the climax comes, there is nothing spectacular about it. If Baras is a jackhammer, Barrio is a corkscrew. The difference between them is the difference between shadow and substance.

Event Information:

"Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca"

Through March 31 at the Connelly Theater, Manhattan; soledadbarrioandnocheflamenca.com

NYTimes