The Spanish star Sara Baras has appeared many times before an adoring public in the annual Flamenco Festival New York. Over the years, I’ve been impressed by her undeniably high technical abilities, suspicious of her fancy productions and ultimately left cold by a diva-like showmanship that retreats to the shallows.
That’s ultimately how I feel about “Alma,” which Baras and her company performed at New York City Center on Thursday as the sole dance production of this year’s festival. But “Alma” is a looser, warmer show, its two hours spotted with soothing moments and good times. I was nearly won over.
Much of its distinct tone derives from the music. The score — by Keko Baldomero, who plays guitar in the excellent band — crosses traditional flamenco rhythms and forms with the wistful, slow-dance romance of boleros. The wonderful singers, Rubio de Pruna and Matías López, push crooning into the high-pressure zones of flamenco, and the mixed instrumentation (bongos, congas) offers new colors. Diego Villegas plays flute and harmonica, and his long, bluesy sax solo near the end of the show is its high point.
The production design (scenery by Peroni and Garriets, lighting by Chiqui Ruiz) evokes a supper-club floor show: vintage microphones, precision spotlights, a fringe curtain. And something about the atmosphere and the music seems to relax Baras.
This is still a star vehicle. When the other dancers — five women and Daniel Saltares — are given tiny solos, they demonstrate prowess, but mainly they function as a very tight chorus. Even when Baras is offstage, they seem like backup, giving her a breather. Dancing with Saltares or Charo Pedraja (the only one of the five women to be singled out), she can be chummy, but it’s never long before the formations revert to centering her. She cedes attention to the musicians for stretches, but her overamplified feet (automatic weapons that are sometimes too automatic) are always at the front of the sound mix.
The chumminess is winning, though. In “Alma,” Baras treats her dancers with a collegial affection that comes across in embraces and little gestures like holding the curtain as the others pass through.
At times, the choreography of “Alma” seems to allude to unseen presences. There’s a lot of pointing to the wings or upward, and when the dancers break off into pairs, Saltares sometimes dances as if with an invisible partner. Soulfulness isn’t Baras’s strength, but “Alma” (“soul” in Spanish) has the most feeling of any show she’s brought to New York. It’s dedicated to her father, who died recently and who loved boleros.
Her main romance, as ever, is with the audience. The Spanish lyrics, characteristically for boleros, tend to address a beloved and, for Baras, the “you” in the songs is usually us. She blows us kisses, flashes a squinty smile, drops to her knees in gratitude for applause.
The crowd on Thursday ate it up, and it was hard not to be charmed, especially during the coda, a traditional “fin de fiesta” when the musicians bust out moves. Villegas, the saxophonist, used the classic gag of casting an invisible fishing line and reeling himself offstage. Baras joined the other female dancers in a kick line as López sang “New York, New York” — pandering but fail-safe.
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