When Hector Orezzoli and Claudio Segovia produced "Tango Argentino" in Paris in 1980, it was such a theatrical longshot the company couldn't afford airfare from Buenos Aires. They ended up hitching a ride on an Argentine air force plane, sharing the cabin with an Exocet missile being flown to France for repairs.

But that was before the leg-whipping eroticism of "Tango" drew raves in Paris, electrified New York for seven months and snowballed into something of a global cultural phenomenon. The Japanese are mad for "Tango." Tangomania is currently headed for Munich. And Orezzoli these days jets between his houses in New York and Paris.

Tuesday Orezzoli and Segovia bring their follow-up show, "Flamenco Puro," to the Warner Theatre for a week, following a year of similarly critical huzzahs in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But Orezzoli says it's really very different.

"Tango is like drama," the sleepy-eyed Argentine said here the other day, "flamenco is tragedy."

What the two shows share is an unadorned view of the art of the underclass; of the savage pain and beauty of life and love that promises more than it delivers. It is that art that most fascinates Orezzoli, a Buenos Aires native trained in psychology for whom the theater has become a kind of analyst's couch for native cultures. He is drawn to the blues of American blacks and the fados of Portugal, songs that cry out against fate and speak of bitter resignation and irony. Tango and flamenco are the blues of Argentina and Spain, but while tango was born in the dance halls and bordellos of Buenos Aires near the turn of the century, flamenco, the music and dance of Spain's Andalusian Gypsies, "is a much older art ... a mixture of very old civilizations," Orezzoli says. "It gives another dimension, I think."

One difficulty with flamenco, however, is "that people think they know what flamenco is": a dancer with a mantilla and castanets, or a style of rhythmic guitar, "or a way to party and drink sangria when you are in Spain." The popular concept of flamenco, he says, comes from productions like the old Jose Greco company, which, while entertaining in their way, "were like music hall programs ... and put in elements of other disciplines that had nothing to do with flamenco."

Orezzoli once shared that ignorance.

"When I was very young, I wanted to be a flamenco dancer. That was my dream at 6 or 7 and it lasted for some years. My mother had a close friend who was Spanish and ... we used to see all the Spanish companies that would come to Buenos Aires. And there were lots of Andalusian immigrants with clubs where you could hear flamenco.

"But I was very naive. Because {years later} when we were in Spain and started living the flamenco, it was another world. Pure flamenco is like an abstract language that has its own rules and laws and ceremony, and that's what fascinated me. When you think about flamenco, you think first about its incredible energy, but when you go further, you realize that flamenco is that whole world and that it's very rich ... not only dance but also words and everything -- a whole mythology. And that's what we tried to do, to arrive at a structure that would put that whole world in a theater."

With his slicked-back hair, silk scarf and gold fox head stickpin, Orezzoli, 35, looks more like a polo-playing Argentine of leisure than an artist obsessed with context. But when he talks about the distillation of life's hardships into music and dance there is a restless, searching quality to his words. He toys with and rejects terms like "folkloric" or "nostalgic" or "ethnomusicology" to describe his shows. They are meant, he says, to anthologize different musical traditions "in a way that makes a statement, like a dramatist."

After undergraduate work in literature and psychology at the University of Buenos Aires and drama and scenic design at the University of Belgrano, Orezzoli designed sets and costumes in Argentina, then went to France in 1975 to help create the opera "Carnival de Venise" at the Festival of Aix-en-Provence. He has lived primarily in Europe ever since, designing for theaters in France, Spain, Brazil and Argentina. It was in Spain in the late 1970s that he deepened his understanding of flamenco, which led to the first staging of "Flamenco Puro" in Seville in 1980.

"The people we have chosen are all Gypsies ... almost all from Andalusia. In the summer they do concerts for specialists, like jazz or folk festivals, and you can go there on weekends and it is fabulous because you can stay from 10 at night until 6 in the morning in the open air and you drink and there is a lot of spirit there. It is for the real aficionados because they sing and dance for a long time. There are some tourists there, but it is not touristic. Mainly they are people from the local area. And there you see the real flamenco."

Unlike tango, which was a dying art when Orezzoli and Segovia first staged "Tango Argentino" in 1983, flamenco remains very much alive in Spain. The reason, Orezzoli says, is that Gypsies remain as they have been for centuries, essentially alienated from Spanish society, and the traditions and conventions of flamenco "are the way they structure their reality.

"Flamenco can go very deep. Some copias {little verses} date from the last century and are very philosophic, very romantic statements {that} act like an oracle for them. They have all those words in their heads, and that's how they construct their psyches, I imagine."

The traditions of flamenco are essentially those of the Gypsy families. So strong are they, Orezzoli says, that the families have come together from Spain, buy and cook their own food and maintain much of the same routine they keep at home.

While the children of the cast in "Tango Argentino" appear to care little about their parents' art, he says, "the flamenco children are there every night, watching and studying every move ... learning all the time ... At a wedding or baptism each would take a moment to sing something or dance something. Being an artist under these conditions is much more complicated than just going to college. It is first of all a decision or a special virtue and then a whole attitude ..."

Orezzoli remains fascinated by that highly personal attitude, which he finds in degrees in almost every culture. He and Segovia last year put together a review in Paris called "Black and Blue," featuring black American performers "from the tradition of the music hall ... the Apollo Theatre ... to recover a kind of expression we thought was missing. But when we came here to hold auditions, they were at first disasters. Everyone wanted to dance for us Broadway style. It was all the same."

What he wanted, Orezzoli said, "was something that has to do always with life ... people who really had something of their own to say through their art. For instance, someone who has been elaborating a type of tap dancing all his life, that becomes his language, his story, his helplessness, his rage."

Such individualized expression has largely vanished from popular music and dance due to the homogonizing force of television, Orezzoli said, "but when we put it on the stage it was for many people like opening a book of their own life. The art touched something they had forgotten or put aside."

The same phenomenon has occurred in "Tango", "Flamenco" and "Black and Blue", he says. The performers have found new pride in their work and striven to be better. The women begin to talk about losing weight.

But the most rewarding effect from the shows, Orezzoli says, has come from the audiences themselves. When he first brought "Tango" to Paris, he says, "the Argentines in Europe said 'You must be crazy.' In general the tango was disreputable and nothing they wanted to be associated with. And when it did so well in Paris it was like they looked in the mirror and saw themselves transformed. And that resolved in some cases the Argentine identity crisis, which, with Argentines always trying to be Europeans in general, is terrible."

Likewise, he says, in Spain "no one would think of representing Spain with a real flamenco show. They would rather send a play by Shakespeare done in Italian to look more European ... Or do flamenco in jeans and black sweaters to look intellectual."

Even for American blacks, he said, "the rich tradition of tap dance was for very long an embarrassment ... young dancers wanted to study modern dance or ballet." In searching out blues singers for "Black and Blue," Orezzoli said, he looked long and hard for the legendary Laverne Baker, who had sung as a young woman at the Apollo, and after months of inquiries learned she was performing at a Navy base in the Philippines. He flew halfway around the world to hear her sing the blues, Orezzoli said, only to have her say, "I can't sing the blues in here! Nobody will come in. They all want this contemporary stuff."

For the Gypsies of "Flamenco Puro," however, no such identity problems exist, Orezzoli says. "They have very strong roots. They always come back to their center.

"The women that dance ... during the day they take care of the children, they do the cooking, they do the laundry and then they take a shower and they go to the theater to dance. The art is all very much a part of their lives and it always has been. For them, as for the men, it's natural. They know who they are and that is nothing they want to change. They have no other dreams. They are in harmony."