As Pure as it Gets: Pepe Torres Flamenco

By Rachel Straus

“This is 200 percent authentic flamenco,” whispered a Seville-born audience member during Homenaje, the one-night show created by Spanish dancer Pepe Torres, presented by the World Music Institute, and held at NYU’s Skirball Center on November 13. I think I knew what she meant. My first introduction to flamenco involved watching a troika of heavily made-up woman in ruffled organza skirts. They haughtily arched their backs and flourished serpentine-shaped arms. Then they pulverized the floor with their feet while looking mad as hell. Torres did nothing of the sort. With his ensemble of six male musicians, Torres was a marvel for what he is not: A sexed-up dancer, a drama king. His crystalline percussive footwork and lack of histrionics were awesome for what he laid bare: A passion for rhythm and performing with others.

After a 20-minute delay, Homenaje began in silence with Torres seated next to his flamenco shoes. Then the 33-year-old dancer from Seville began playing the guitar while looking at the audience, his face mesmerizing for its wide-eyed, tragic-comic dimensions (The muscles around his eyebrows slope down, those around his mouth curl up). It was fitting that Torres’s homage or Homenaje to his ancestors began with embracing an instrument. Music drives Torres’s artistic vision. His family is known for their gypsy guitar tradition, which is semi-improvisational, heavy-fingered, and passed from one generation to the next. While Torres’s grandfather Joselero de Moron introduced him to zapateado (flamenco’s rapid-fire footwork), his great uncle, the legendary Andalusian gypsy guitarist Diego del Gastor, initiated him into the rigors of playing and dancing in an ensemble.

Torres may have been the only dancer on Skirball’s stage, but Homenaje wasn’t a vehicle for his star power, primarily because the two-hour show for¡Flamenco Festival Gitano!felt unadorned and collaborative. Torres ended all four of his solos by walking off stage, as though his previous virtuoso dancing was merely a stopover between buying milk and a conversing with friends seated behind him, who happened to be playing guitars, singing, and hand clapping. The low production values of Homenaje added to its casual quality. The lighting was bare bones. The only props were a table and the wood chairs that the men sat on. The ensemble dressed in black (Torres appeared once in a gray suit). If it weren’t for the musician’s face mikes (which they occasionally manipulated with irritation), the men could have been in a backroom café.

But their song wasn’t easy on the heart. In laments, which ricocheted between piercing cries and minor key ululations, one male singer at a time reached an emotional fever pitch. Then like a wound mysteriously cauterized, the individual songs of Luis Moneo, Dávid Sanchez, Juan José Mador, Jr. abruptly ended. When Torres appeared, he breathed contrast into the proceedings. The percussive intensity of his footwork along side the fast fingerings of guitarists Eugenio and Paco Iglesias became an antidote to the long, heavy tones of the men’s cante (song). These spontaneous-seeming expressions of fervid intensity and then eternal sorrow are what make people mad for flamenco.

Homenaje ended with an extended encore by singer, guitarist, and elder statesman Juan del Gastor. Like a wine with an impressive pedigree, Gastor knows he’s special (the Playbill stated he is “heir to the guitar playing of his uncle Diego del Gastor”). Nonetheless, Gastor was the least compelling performer of the evening. He strutted like an old peacock and sported a violet-colored silk cravat. He didn’t bother with the microphone. While Gastor sang and danced (for what I feared might be a long time), Torres sat at the table and looked on admiringly. Unafraid of relinquishing the spotlight, Torres showed how flamenco is bound by honoring one’s predecessors. Yet Torres’s ability to dance percussive complexity and shirk the temptations of modern stagecraft is why many see him as person first, a performer second. It’s why Torres is considered authentic to the flamenco tradition.



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