Sara Baras Alma: Sydney Festival 2023

Michelle East
28th Jan 2023

Is there a record for the number of standing ovations during a single performance? If there is, Sara Baras has smashed it with Alma. Sydney audiences will applaud generously. We will rise one row at time in a kind of half-hearted Mexican wave of a thankyou that peters out midway. Last night the audience voted with their feet, Sara Baras is exceptional. When was the last time you saw the entire concert hall moved to their feet during the performance? Once, twice, three times. I rest my case.

It’s hardly a secret that Sara Baras is exceptional, she is one of the greatest flamenco dancers of all time. An illustrious 30 year career as a dancer, director and choreographer, Baras is at the top of her game. She is a national treasure receiving the highest dance honours in Spain and abroad. She won the 2020 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance. Her flamenco is based on tradition and brought to life with a modern sensibility.

Alma means soul and mixes bolero and flamenco. Bolero evokes nostalgia and longing for a more glamorous period. Bolero has two origin stories. In 18th century Spain it grew as a fusion of fandango, sevillanas and contradanza. This Bolero was influential in the emergence of modern flamenco. In the late 19th century, it emerged from Cuba.

Alma is a return to the heart. It opens with a slow reveal. 1930's style microphone stands wait in front of a shimmering fringe curtain. Suited dancers enter to perform a slow and powerful bolero. As is tradition in solo and with the nearest partner, the microphone stands.

Baras dramatic entrance behind the fringe cements her authority. Dressed in form fitting black and white, her contortions and control is mesmerising. Famous for her farruca rapid fire footwork, her control conceals the fire beneath. Farruca is traditionally performed by men. Baras smashes that glass ceiling with astonishing precision and speed.

The dancers return in matching spot dress, performing a homage to the gaucho/bolero hat. The dancers from Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras are not mere costume change fillers. Each is an accomplished soloist. Dancers Chula García, Charo Pedraja, Daniel Saltares, Cristina Aldón, Noelia Vilches, and Marta De Troya hold their own space. Excellence in choreography continues through a series of set pieces, building to a crescendo.

Flamenco is as much about the music as it is the dancing. The ensemble of musicians deserves their own concert. Guitarist Keko Baldomero is a rising star as music director and composer. Andres Martinez joins him on guitar. Singers Juana La Del Pipa and Israel Fernández Y Rancapino Chico break my heart. Alex Romero on piano, Jose Manuel "Popo" on double bass. Antón Suárez and Manuel Muñoz “El Pájaro” on percussion with singers Rubio De Pruna and Matías López “El Mati” bring it all together. Diego Villegas on flute and harmonica threatens to steal the show his saxophone solo and duet with Baras.

Alma is an arresting visual experience. Luis F. Dos Santos is wardrobe master of the most stunning costumes. From modern women in tailored suits to an exquisite antique shawl. Lighting by Chiqui Ruiz and scenography by Peroni, Garriets essential elements. The fringe screen conceals/reveals and holds saturated colour. Simple and effective.

During the first section, I'm feeling like the balance is set a little too far towards technique and control. Then I find myself standing. I turn around to apologise to the people behind me and find the whole concert hall on their feet. Baras always in charge has hypnotised 3,000 people. We do not seem to be able to stop rising in appreciation. With each outpouring, Baras and audience open their souls a little bit more. By the end of the performance, we do not want to let each other go. To those people who left in the race to be first out of the carpark, you missed the best bit. The performance extended well beyond the 90 minutes allotted until the stage manager booted us out.

Sara Baras, please don't leave it another 15 years to return.