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Flamenco within and beyond a boundary
Karen Lugo, a choreographer of “Fronteras,” performing in a bata de cola skirt at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan, June 21, 2022. Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana’s show has a group of very good and remarkably equal dancers sharing a bounded space. Caitlin Ochs/The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- Whether showing off or baring their souls, flamenco dancers tend to be soloists. Confining eight of them within a border — an area outlined with tape on the floor — has the flavor of a social experiment. How will they share the stage?

This is the conceit of “Fronteras,” or “Borders,” which Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana debuted at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday. You don’t have to read the program note to understand that the choreographers, guest artists José Maldonado and Karen Lugo, are against the imposition of boundaries, social and artistic, and want to transcend them. But the limits they have imposed on themselves and their fellow cast members are fruitful. This is an uncommonly deft balancing of the individual and the group in flamenco, and solid entertainment to boot.

In some ways, “Fronteras” is a standard flamenco show, with standard strengths, especially an original score by José Luis de la Paz, who plays live with his fellow guitarist Calvin Hazen and the excellent singers Francisco Orozco and El Trini de la Isla. But the premise — no dancer ever leaves the stage — forces interesting choices. For a brief moment, the dancers split into opposing gangs, but soon the show settles into the conventional form of a series of solos or specialty turns.

Or almost conventional. Each dancer has an identifying prop from the trunk of traditional flamenco items (a fan, a fringed shawl, a cane) and a different flamenco style or song form (jota, granaína) through which to express his or her personality. Maldonado has a scarf that he pulls between his teeth and thighs in an appealingly comical-sexy manner. Lugo wields a long-tailed bata de cola skirt with punk energy, tossing her body around as much as she does the dress.

But within this conventional setup are some unusual features. One is that Maldonado’s and Lugo’s turns come in the middle. They aren’t the stars. There aren’t any stars, or weak links, either. The eight dancers are remarkably equal, each holding attention in a distinctive way. No one burns a hole in the show. No one lets it sag.

The continuity also stems from the conceit. During each solo, the other dancers, stuck onstage, periodically echo or extend the motions of the soloist in clever and inventive group choreography. Often, they do it with a comic spirit — mocking Emilio Ochando and his castanets before he wows us with footwork and turns as fast as his fingers, or making cartoon noises when the stylish Adrian Dominguez drops his hat.

The comedy, while not laugh out loud, keeps the tone light and unpretentious, although Maldonado and Lugo succeed in making serious points, too. After the solos, the dancers start mixing, your-chocolate-with-my-peanut-butter style, ingeniously combining hat and tambourine, scarf and cane. As they swap items, Ochando ends up wearing Lugo’s skirt, crossing borders of gender.

This mingling and trading works so well that it’s baffling when the production swerves into a glow-in-the-dark section in which the dancers arrange their objects into a smiley face. It feels like an excerpt from a different show, maybe a preview of the Momix spectacle coming to the Joyce next month.

But then, satisfyingly if predictably, the performers lay down their props and pull up the tape, finishing with a dance party, everyone taking turns, supporting and celebrating everyone else. This is how most flamenco shows end. “Fronteras” freshens the meaning.

Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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