Dance

Greats Grace Miami Flamenco Festival XIV And Sara Baras Is One Of Them

Written By Helena Alonso Paisley
March 12, 2023 at 11:33 PM

Sara Baras brings her company in “Alma” to the 14th annual Flamenco Festival Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center beginning Thursday, March 16 and Sunday, March 19. (Photo courtesy of Sofia Wittert)

Of the many gifted musicians performing in the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Flamenco Festival XIV Miami, two stand out, their places secure not just in Spain’s pantheon of greats, but in the world’s.

Guitarist Rafael Riqueni, who is celebrating his 45th anniversary as a performer, will be making his Miami debut. The festival opens Thursday, March 16 and runs through Sunday, March 19.

The other, Sara Baras, brings her company of 14 terrific dancers and musicians for a record third appearance at the festival, the most of any artist in its history, performing for three shows Friday, March 17, through Sunday, March 19.

With “Alma,” reigning queen of flamenco Sara Baras makes her third appearance at Flamenco Festival Miami. (Photo courtesy of Sofia Wittert)

As a dancer, Baras is known worldwide for the feline beauty of her line, the dervish-like velocity of her turns and the captivating power of her 1,000-megawatt smile that pulls audiences in like moths to a flame. Her charismatic presence and technical prowess have made her the most famous flamenco dancer performing today.

But Baras is also a musician, a virtuoso percussionist who plays the stage floor like a snare drum and who could go head-to-head with Travis Barker and not break a sweat. With bursts of machine gun speed and metronomic precision, she can lay down a groove on hardwood like few others.

Baras, who once said she could take reggaeton and make it flamenco, delights in mixing it up with musicians from other genres. She has performed with artists ranging from Chavela Vargas to Josep Carreras, from Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to American saxophonist Tim Ries. For my money, you won’t find a more delicious flamenco-jazz fusion than when, in 2008, her footwork met Ries’ sax in a late-night single take of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” with vocalist Lisa Fischer.

(Watch the fusion happen in the video below in the clip at 5:30)

Under the musical direction of guitarist and composer Keko Baldomero, “Alma” (“soul” in Spanish) is its own brand of alchemy, taking traditional boleros and interpreting them through a flamenco prism. The stage is set with minimal props: a see-through fringed curtain that divides the performers, retro-looking mikes on stands, and a solitary clothes rack. The women’s costumes, ranging from tight pants and smoking jackets to silky gowns in shades of blue, lavender, and grey, complete the tableau. Visually, “Alma” makes a nostalgic nod to the great cabarets of the 1950s. Musically, it manages to sound completely modern.

Baras says that her inspiration for the piece arrived in a curious fashion. It came from her father, she explains, who she said was her biggest fan, but who clearly was not born with the family gift for flamenco.

“My father loved boleros. But he always talked about how hard it was to tell the different flamenco rhythms apart. One day, it started almost like a game. We would take a melody from a bolero that he knew and give it a flamenco rhythm, so he could remember them.” She dedicates “Alma” to his memory.

“He died a month after the debut,” she says, “so “Alma” has taken on a different meaning . . . It started as one thing and ended up being something very profound. The emotional element in it is really powerful. Without heart, without soul, it wouldn’t be the same. It’s not mathematical, it’s much more emotional, it’s a feeling . . . Our language, our heart is flamenco.”

In his Miami debut, virtuoso guitarist Rafael Riqueni closes Flamenco Festival Miami on Sunday, March 19 in an outdoor performance at the Arsht Center’s Thomson Plaza for the Arts. (Photo courtesy of Manuel Naranjo)

Like Baras, Riqueni, who performs in an outdoor concert on Sunday, March 19, threads the needle of remaining true to deep flamenco roots while welcoming other influences from the jazz and classical realms. He, too, has performed with an impressive array of dancers and singers throughout his career, from pop divas like Isabel Pantoja and Rocío Jurado to iconic flamenco singers like Enrique Morente and José Mercé. Today, cutting-edge younger performers like Rocío Molina and Rosario la Tremendita seek him out as a collaborator. One of the form’s most sensitive and gifted composers, his creative output shows no signs of slowing down in this, his fifth decade as a professional artist.

“I feel like I am playing better today than when I was younger,” he says. With recent albums like “Parque de Maria Luisa” (2017) and the Latin Grammy-nominated “Herencia” (2021), listeners can hear the broad spectrum of texture and mood Riqueni evokes in his works. These range from a deeply meditative tone poem like “Aquel Día,” from “Parque de María Luisa,” to a seductively danceable tango like “Pureza,” from “Herencia,” a piece that pulls you inexorably into its melodic orbit and plunges your heart into the steady and soothing cadence of its rhythm.

Miami’s Irene Lozano kicks off Flamenco Festival XIV on Thursday, March 16. (Photo courtesy of artist management)

The guitarist and the dancer hold a fundamental musical principle in common, one that Baras remembers learning from her maternal grandfather, a classical pianist.

“He would always say, ‘You don’t beat a piano, you caress it,’ ” she recalls. “I say the same thing. The dance floor, the stage—you caress it.” Riqueni does the same, seeming to effortlessly pull complex and timeless melodies from the very air around him.

These two extraordinary performers have both forged their artistic genius through countless hours, days, and decades of practice. As a boy of 12 or 13, Riqueni says, he was lucky to be taken on as a student by guitar legend Manolo Sanlúcar. “He showed me how to study. He taught me that discipline, and I would practice for seven or eight hours a day.”

Sara Baras steps out from behind an icicle curtain in “Alma,” where minimalist sets give off the cool of Vegas in its Rat Pack heyday. (Photo of Sofia Wittert)

“We have a gift,” Riqueni says simply. “That gift doesn’t belong to us. But we have this gift, and then there’s technique . . .Without technique, we can’t do anything with our gift.”

Baras concurs.

“If the inspiration finds you, it has to catch you with many hours of work behind you so that you are able to make something of that moment,” she says. “If not, nothing will come of it.”

WHAT AND WHEN:   Flamenco Festival Miami with Irene Lozano: “Las Mujeres Que Habitan En Mi,” 7:30 p.m., Thursday, March 19, Peacock Foundation Studio. Sara Baras, “Alma,” 8 p.m. Friday, March 17 and Saturday, March 18; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 19, Knight Concert Hall. Rafael Riqueni, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, March 19, Thomson Plaza for the Arts.

WHERE:  Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

COST: $20 – $135 depending on performance.

INFORMATION: 305-949-6722 or at arshtcenter.org

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