If all dance is a kind of magical transformation of the body, flamenco must be black magic.
Nineteenth century choreography made the body into something unusually fluid and graceful; our century emphasizes its angularity. Flamenco, which began five centuries ago, makes it seem a thing possessed. The top of the body is held in statuesque elegance; the feet move as if lashed by demons.
As in their earlier creation, "Tango Argentino," Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli organize "Flamenco Puro" as an introduction to the vocabulary of the art.
After a brief sampling of the skills of the company of 20, which includes some of Spain's most celebrated artists, the stage is darkened. Against a semi-circle of black cloth panels, which seem as heavy and ominous as Stonehenge, a singer who goes by the name El Chocolate stands in a solo spotlight and initiates us into the sound of flamenco – a wail full of anguish and defiance. Sometimes it sounds as if the throat is being torn apart to create these piercing sounds.
Then we hear the flamenco guitar, as expressive as the voice and shimmering as a waterfall in sunlight.
To these sounds is added the spectacle of the dance. As in "Tango," what is refreshing about the performers is their humanness. They are not sylphs. Some are lean, more are stocky. Some are old. But all carry themselves with fierce pride, and everything has an intensity that makes it mesmerizing and fascinating, even though, to unfamiliar eyes and ears, much has a sameness.
The costumes are flamboyant, the lighting dramatic. But production values are almost superfluous for these artists. "Flamenco Puro" is a powerful introduction to a haunting art.
Spain is a darker country than tourist posters might lead you to suspect. And flamenco dancing is not merely a matter of flounce, pout, and sex, even though it has been sold just as such.
Such warnings – if warnings they be – are necessary to introduce the new dance show "Flamenco Puro" which officially opened last night at the Mark Hellinger Theater.
People expecting a warm wet gush of gypsy magic might feel that the show is more "Pura" than "Flamenco," but aficionados of Spanish dance will welcome the show’s cool, classic authenticity and austerity.
Its excitements are none the less potent for being genuine – or, at least, one hopes not, for this show has taste, where taste is unexpected, and style, where empty glitz is too often the norm.
The show has been created by those two inventive Argentines, Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, who last season gave us the Broadway hit "Tango Argentino" at this same theater.
"Flamenco Puro" is a quite different event. In "Tango" the impresarios were creating a new kind of package – taking the sophisticated, nightclub tango out of the dance hall and putting it on stage, virtually for the first time.
But we have had flamenco troupes for the best part of this century, from the graceful authenticity and eclecticism of Argentina and Escudero (who were both before my time), and Argentinita and her great sister, Pilar Lopez, to the gypsy abandon of Carmen Amaya, the showbiz glitter of Antonio, the strange creativeness of Luisillo.
But "Flamenco Puro," is seemingly an attempt to step beyond the frontiers of showbiz and cabaret, to show the world flamenco as it really is, in the cafes, caves, and dusty side streets of Seville.
There have been attempts at this before. As long ago as 1921, Serge Diaghilev staged a "Cuadro Flamenco" in the context of his own ballet company – even giving it a décor by Picasso.
Twenty years or so ago a group from the famed flamenco haunt, Café Zambra, toured briefly outside Spain, and for years Pilar Lopez maintained quite stringent standards within her revue format, a tradition that has been extended along more dramatic lines by her former disciple, Antonio Gades.
But nothing is going to prepare the uninitiated for this "Flamenco Puro." It is like going to a bullfight for the first time. You may think you know what it is going to be like, but you don’t.
First there is the singing – the cante jondo, that deep-throated cry of joyous pain, alive with the awareness of death, that can, to the wrong, or even unattuned ears, sound like the caterwauling of cats.
Then there is the classic guitar, so remote from the electronic monster we call our own, and sharply different from the lute-like niceties of the guitar in our concert hall.
And the dancing…always the dancing. This is far less showy than people so often imagine. Jose Greco is to flamenco what Tommy Tune is to Harlem.
The present show is beautiful in its sense of family, its demonstration of passion – almost abstract passion – and its tremendous feel for the rhythms of basic dance and basic life.
There is no cult of personality here. The dancers and musicians look like the kind of people you might see on a Spanish street. They are not particularly striking to look at, their dress is somber, chiefly black and gray, and no one has a rose between the teeth.
The feeling is that of a family gathering. From the opening semi-circle to the festive farewell, we are invited to look at people performing almost – but essentially never quite – for themselves.
There are, of course, some stand-out performers. The proud and razor-sharp Eduardo Serrano (nicknamed "El Guito"), once here with Pilar, or the stick-waving, barrel-bellied Antonio Montoya, known as "El Farruco."
Some of the women, like Adela Chaqueta and La Faraona, have the kind of womanly grace we associated with Pilar, and the raspy, throaty singing of El Chocolate sounds like raw red wine and coarse bread.
The style is consistent, the tension and pressure of the evening very deliberately even.
But this is a wonderful opportunity to see gypsy flamenco dancing of a purity you would, as a tourist, find it difficult to encounter in Spain – certainly without the kind of inspired guidance provided here by Segovia and Orezzoli.
There is a wonderful quotation from Lorca in the program, that is so apt that I must adopt it for my own ending.
"It [Flamenco] does not act out tragedy, it is tragedy. It makes no poetry, it is poetry. It does not need exuberance to express itself, it is content to cry out."
In my time of theatergoing, flamenco has never been seen to cry out more eloquently. Listen to that cry, and shiver.
The heart of Spanish flamenco is the ''cante jondo,'' the ''deep song,'' whose mix of the sacred and the profane vibrates so visibly from every singer and dancer in the new show ''Flamenco Puro.''
There is no other way to say it: these Spanish gypsy artists are 100 percent terrific. Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, the masterminds behind last year's runaway hit ''Tango Argentino,'' have now applied a similar formula to a very different tradition. Their most recent production at the Mark Hellinger Theater, which opened last night, is a simply sensational show - a display of flamenco styles as only gypsy performers can render them.
Not since Carmen Amaya (who died in 1963) exuded her own gypsy brand of intense eroticism and exuberance has New York seen so much earthiness in flamenco dancing - a genre here nonetheless kept within its own strict forms.
The beauty of these seven dancers with their 13 singers and guitarists is specifically their gift of giving us a sense of the rhythmic and musical form underlying each flamenco dance. There is as much discipline as sensuality when the statuesque Manuela Carrasco floats out with closed-eye hauteur onto the stage.
Flamenco is the art of extreme concentration. When Eduardo Serrano (El Guito) suddenly breaks out into a brief frenzy, the power behind both the preceding reserve and the outburst blazes out for all to see. The marvelous explosion of jumps and steps that erupts from Antonio Montoya (El Farruco) is as much the fruit of a discipline perfected as inherited.
Flamenco is a deeply internalized art. Although not an exclusive gypsy preserve, it has traditionally been identified with the gypsy performers who have done the most to mold it.
What is wonderful about this artfully conceived production is that it remains true to two gypsy flamenco tenets. One is that there is not a castanet to be seen or heard.
A second idea is related to flamenco's essence. The flamenco dance is a solitary dance. And while ''Flamenco Puro,'' of necessity, includes some theatricalization, it keeps to the core of its genre, which is that each dancer is mainly a soloist, reaching deep within himself or herself.
For all its joy, flamenco is often concerned with lamentation. Persecuted ferociously until the beginning of the 19th century, Spain's gypsies have infused their music and dance with the tragic element we do not see in other Spanish dancers.
When Antonio Nunez (El Chocolate) appears to choke on his vocal cords, we know this veteran singer has given us the finest of flamenco style. Adela Chaqueta, no longer young, but endearing as she dances a bit and sings with powerful exuberance, has a gravelly sound that is just as right. And when Fernanda de Utrera, also a veteran, stands and sings her ''Soleares,'' her intensity and style as she steps out of character briefly following each verse recall the solos of the great Indian dancer Balasaraswati.
Did Spanish gypsies really originate in India? The point is that these performers show us history made contemporary. There is a striking number of individual styles of dancing in this show. It is not a company. Instead the producers have selected distinct performers, as they did in ''Tango Argentino,'' and created a frame for them.
The set by Mr. Segovia and Mr. Orezzoli is simple but symbolic. There is a suggestion of a bull ring in the circular curtain panels, similar to entrances for bullfighters. The dancers often fade into these passages as the stage darkens.
There is only one narrative episode, itself an abstract rendering of a love triangle with a family setting that recalls Garcia Lorca's plays. But essentially the dancers simply dance, and they are all highly trained professionals.
While Miss Carrasco is especially striking, with her strong face and sculptural style, the other women are also downright outstanding. Unlike non-gypsy flamenco performers, they have mobile torsos and are less concerned with staying erect or arching the back. In the ''Alegrias'' suite, the brilliant Angelita Vargas and Rosario Montoya (La Farruquita) break loose with the kind of heel work one rarely sees.
Miss Carrasco's heel work moves from delicacy to power. Miss Vargas, with Diego Camacho (El Boqueron) as her singer in the ''Tientos,'' demonstrates the bent-leg footwork that the show favors. The bump-and-grind style that Pilar Montoya (La Faraona) offers so good-humoredly is also a specialty. Jose Cortes (El Biencasao) is heroic in his matador stance dancing to smart perfection.
The indispensable guitarists are excellent - Joaquin and Ramon Amador, Agustin Carbonell, Jose and Juan Carmona Carmona and Jose Miguel Carmona Nino. Juan Jose Amador, Enrique (El Extremeno) and Juan Fernandez (El Moreno) are the singers in this exceptional program.