Frills and spills: flamenco's hot-steppers kick up a storm in London

Flamenco is shifting away from its traditional roots at an accelerating pace to become a vivid, relevant theatrical force. In this year’s flamenco festival in London, two shows by female choreographer-performers take on themes of transformation with wildly different approaches.

In The Thorn That Wanted to Be a Flower, Or the Flower That Dreamed of Being a Dancer (★★★☆☆), Olga Pericet tries on a host a characters, from football yob to gunslinger to clucking chicken. She is a comedian, drama queen and contrarian, at one point giving up dancing altogether to lie on a table while her fantastic band play on (including Antonia Jiménez, a rare female guitarist) with the fabulously snake-hipped dancer Jesús Fernández. But gradually Pericet sheds the artifice and the real dancer is revealed, and this is where she really captivates, her small frame a mighty presence, a dancer of compelling assuredness revelling in the spotlight as herself.

So far so good, but then comes Patricia Guerrero, who steps things up to the next level. In Catedral (★★★★☆), Guerrero is not simply throwing some thematic ideas at a flamenco concert but embodying a fully realised concept, in this case the oppressive force of the Catholic church on women’s lives.

Startling talent … Patricia Guerrero in Catedral. Photograph: Juan Conca

On a stage of dark shadows, Guerrero, in black lace mantilla, is lit by a shaft of chiaroscuro. The dancer’s figure, and the air around her, is heavily infused with fear, tension, guilt and penance. Her arms move in an interrupted staccato, twitching like a hunted animal on high alert. Ordinary gestures take on ominous meaning: when Guerrero and her three fellow dancers gather their skirts in front of them, the practical matter of freeing up their feet turns into desperately clutching the fabric to their chests, the tension visible in their braced bodies.

Guerrero’s dancing is both fearsome and afraid, yet there’s anger here and determination in purposeful phrases. The power of her foot striking the floor hits you with the shock and finality of a door slamming in your face. Catedral follows Guerrero’s journey to a cacophonous emancipation, a kind of exorcism – complete with the chilling song of a red-robed countertenor, injecting some Purcell into the flamenco score. It’s a powerful work from a startling young talent moving flamenco forward.

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