Compañia María Pagés: An Ode to Time review – flamenco’s grande dame flies

Dancers have an interesting relationship with time, their often short careers usually a race against it. But flamenco can thrive on the experience, presence and full-spectrum emotion of those with a bit of life behind them. By 58, María Pagés is a grande dame at the centre of this company, overseeing a disciplined ensemble of eight young dancers and a group of musicians. It’s the first time I’ve seen her dance with grey hair – it looks like she’s grown out her dye, a deliberate embrace of the effects of time.

When Pagés arrives on stage in a deep red dress, there’s effort and challenge in her movement, the train of her bata de cola skirt like an errant pet she’s trying to tame. There’s also huge passion and enjoyment, basking in backbends, chest open to sky. She’s been called “María of the endless arms”, which is less about their length but the way they never come to a stop, there are always extra milimetres of movement to eke out. Her long fingers hold castanets that chirrup with crisp characterful sounds; she fiercely swirls a huge fringed shawl around her body, as if in battle with it (she wins). These are symbols from flamenco’s roots, going way back in time, although they feel alive and fresh in her hands. In one scene she gathers the company on stage in a ragged circle, drawing on flamenco’s tradition as social art: conversational, celebratory, humorous, outspoken.

But this piece is not about a single idea of a time. We leap, sometimes jarringly, into other eras, from warm communal gathering into cool modernity, in a stylised scene with dancers’ shadows on the walls and rhythms that sound like The Rite of Spring. But then there’s Pagés in soul-baring solo like she’s a woman grieving, keening, pleading, reaching to the sky and bent double to the ground. There are images of war and violence (Guernica is referenced), and then dancers’ arms swooping like birds, with a setting sun behind them.

This is not red-raw emotion dancing; it’s thoughtful, intellectual, but the collection of ideas doesn’t coalesce into a great thesis. Perhaps a translation of lyrics for non-Spanish speakers would hold the key?

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