In so many countries, live dancing cannot be separated from live music. That’s been true of Spanish flamenco for centuries, but what made Saturday’s flamenco concert at the Howard Theatre so memorable wasn’t the display of tradition; it was young performers interweaving contemporary art.
The four-city “Flamenco Soul” came to Washington courtesy of the Berklee College of Music and the Embassy of Spain. Four of the five musicians are students or recent graduates of the esteemed Boston school that has turned out the likes of Esperanza Spalding and Cyrus Chestnut. Last year, the college launched a Mediterranean Music Institute in Valencia, Spain. It seems Berklee is now the best place in the world to study jazz flamenco, and the first thing the students learn is that dancers are a percussion instrument.
Pianist Ariadna Castellanos — a terrifically adroit band leader and deft mover herself, pedaling in four-inch platform stilettos — was soon joined onstage by two professional clappers: Boston-born dancer Nino de Los Reyes and Spanish percussionist Jose Antonio Alvarez Montana. The clapping added complexity and texture to Castellanos’s syncopated playing. By the time a flutist, drummer and bass player came onstage, de Los Reyes was ready to dance on a 4-by-10-foot platform. Legs ramrod straight, torso slightly torqued forward, he began to pound his heels, rapidly changing both dynamics and tempo. He could pirouette and keep tapping as he turned, ending spins with a kick that brought his knee to his chest.
If you’ve seen more traditional flamenco, you know that the relationship between a dancer and her guitarist is unique. Each has to know where the other is going rhythmically and sense the arc of the song. What made de Los Reyes’s performance so jaw-dropping wasn’t just his dancing skills, but his ability to be the sixth member of a band. He could tap faster than flutist Jeremy de Jesus trilled, but it was like they were scatting together. Equally impressive were the quieter moments, with Montana pulsing his fingers on the cajon, a Peruvian box drum, while de Los Reyes danced. When everyone went full-throttle, de Los Reyes was like a version of American tapper Savion Glover, who so often seems more interested in conquering jazz rather than complementing it.
Berklee plans to release its first Flamenco Soul album this fall. You won’t see de Los Reyes, but you’ll hear him. Because without his dancing, there would be no music.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.