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High Concepts and Power Moves

There is packaging, topicality, grand themes, elaborate stage designs, high concepts. And then there are moments when the flesh and blood power of dance itself—the presence of a lone body channeling transcendent purpose—leaves you reeling. Such a moment came when Cristina Hall rose from her chair in La Tania Baile Flamenco’s “Solaz” at San Francisco’s Presidio Theatre.

Performance

 La Tania Baile Flamenco, “Solaz”

Place

Presidio Theatre, San Francisco, CA, July 23, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

La Tania Baile Flamenco’s “Solaz.” Photograph by Kegan Marling

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This transpired in what I would call the second half of the show, though the hour and forty-five minute production offered no intermission. The video backdrops and props were finally gone. Three musicians and four dancers sat in flamenco’s ritual circle, guitarist José Luis de la Paz delicately playing the first note of Siguiriyas—one of flamenco’s oldest and most serious song forms. Hall stirred. She wore a floor-length blue velvet dress, high-necked with patches of black lace, almost demure and vaguely Victorian. She beat her hand against her chest and snapped—boom boom, snap! Boom boom, snap! A heartbeat. Singer José Cortés began his guttural wail.

The solo that followed was one of the most extraordinary I’ve seen in any style of dance. (Admittedly I am far more schooled in watching ballet than flamenco.) Hall rose from her seat with a trembling foot, balanced almost flamingo-like, stepped forward tentatively, in slow motion. She stood nearly nose to nose with Cortés, dancing almost defiantly into his voice. As her dancing grew more expansive, she would often hold a foot up as though hesitating, then swing it behind herself, swooping around with dangerous speed. Her arms evoked flamenco’s familiar iconography, but they also seemed postmodern in their asymmetries, their sharp haltings. She pushed through the air as though to repel a demon, and her hands shot out in all directions from her hips.

From left: Jose Cortes, Jose Luis de la Paz, Cristina Hall in La Tania Baile Flamenco’s “Solaz.” Photograph by Terry Lorant

Hall was possessed, dancing not to the audience but to forces of fate—and yet she launched spectacular, audience-pleasing feats as well. As the music shifted and picked up speed, she propelled across the stage in a long line of frantically stamping heels, seeming to skid on ice. She writhed into a deep backbend as both hands shook. And then she was back to the heartbeat—boom boom, snap!—beating it one final time against the floor before she resumed her seat.

Hall began her flamenco training in San Francisco but now runs her own company in Seville, and her performance sold me: Somebody please book her troupe for a national tour. But the flamenco master running this show was La Tania, and there was plenty to savor in the whole cast, selected for their contrasting lineages and styles. Melissa Cruz delivered a wonderfully distinctive Tientos, her costume of trousers and vest emphasizing the workings of her pelvis, as she tossed her hair explosively above fast footwork. Mizuho Sato in her Alegrias was (as the form would have you expect) playful, deeply flexible, and inclined to play to the audience. And the Solea from La Tania that closed the section radiated understated power, her style clean and focused, a sense of dignity in the clarity of her shapes.

Melissa Cruz, Cristina Hall, and Mizuho Sato in La Tania Baile Flamenco’s “Solaz.” Photograph by Kegan Marling

 As for the packaging, the topicality, the grand theme, the high concepts? They stirred, in this viewer, mixed feelings. Julie Mushet, former director of World Arts West (which used to produce the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival) is to thank for this return of La Tania. Mushet is billed here as “managing director,” but her role seems more akin to producer. It was Mushet who was fascinated by the Temple of Debod, which was built in Egypt in the second century BC and would have been flooded and lost to humanity with the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s, were it not for preservationists who cut the temple into pieces and rebuilt it in Madrid—“a beacon of cultural survival in the face of massive global displacement,” as the program proclaimed.

Mushet saw a connection to La Tania’s life—after an acclaimed thirty-year presence on the San Francisco arts scene, La Tania was forced out by gentrification—and recommended the choreographer take up the theme. And so, “Solaz” began in the outdoor plaza with actor and video artist Adrian Arias wielding a bullhorn in front of a temple arch constructed of suitcases, selecting audience members to carry the suitcases inside. In “Llegada (Arrival),” the dancers in street clothes opened these suitcases to find flamenco costumes inside. Cue the synchronized group dance with wheeled suitcases, followed by a passionate solo with a long ruffled train for Sato, feral in her femininity. All of this was set against beautiful video projections by Arias, of a body curled fetally underwater, of glittery ocean shores, of blooming flowers. That last set of images accompanied a delightful solo for Hall in which she cavorted with two fans.

Cristina Hall in La Tania Baile Flamenco’s “Solaz.” Photograph by Terry Lorant

The choreography was lovely (though I could have done without a suitcase dance). And the music, composed almost entirely by de la Paz, was delicate, rich, and well produced. But for the whole first half of the show, the music was also recorded, and this packaging felt constraining. It was smart of the artistic team not to provide an intermission—without assurance of live music after the break, I might have left if given the opportunity, and I wonder if some others felt the same.

Thank goodness then for that sixth section of “Solaz.” It had a tie-in to the high concept: in their circle with live musicians, the dancers had made it “Hogar (Home).” And after each dancer’s self-choreographed solo and a final group Tangos, La Tania returned in a slinky see-through dress, city lights shining behind her, suitcase in hand. If it takes a high concept to bring her home, I guess I’m all for it.

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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