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Dance review: Maria Bermudez at the Ford Amphitheatre

July 25, 2010 |  8:45 am

She vamped, she emoted, she struck haughty poses, her filigreed fingers slicing the cool night air. Too bad, then, that these actions Friday at the Ford Amphitheatre were more consigned to songs than to flamenco dance, the art form that María Bermúdez has embodied for decades, captivating audiences around the world with her combustible technique and dramatic abandon.

Change is good -- even necessary. However, Bermúdez -- in her eighth appearance at the venue with her Spain-based troupe Sonidos Gitanos (produced by the Fountain Theatre's Deborah Lawlor) -- took a regrettable misstep with this endeavor, the Chicana Gypsy Project. Blending her roots -- American jazz and Mexican rancheras -- with her flamenco prowess, Bermúdez allowed her considerable terpsichorean talents to be overshadowed by garden-variety crooning.

After a brief musical introduction featuring electric and acoustic guitars, stand-up bass, gypsy violin, two flamenco singers and a full drum kit (horrors -- there was no cajón, or box drum),  Bermúdez appeared. Stylishly clad in multitextured layers, topped off by a black bolero blouse (call it Chanel-inspired gaucho), she executed a few whipping turns and body slaps before launching into Gershwin's “Summertime.”

Tackled by such diverse divas as Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and even “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino, the tune doesn't need rehashing or re-contextualizing, making use of 12-beat flamenco rhythms. Occasionally bending notes, Bermúdez then tossed off a few heel-and-toe moves during the instrumental bridge. Gone were sustained segments featuring staccato footwork, deep lunges or signature high jump kicks, replaced, instead, by a modicum of hip-swaying and sinewy arms.

So it went, with Bermúdez warbling "Autumn Leaves" and Van Morrison's “Moondance,” while her rendering of Thelonious Monk's “ 'Round Midnight” was abetted by some adroit shawl-twirling that hinted at trance dance. If Bermúdez were performing straight cabaret, sans the striking flamenco wear (which she designed with Pili Cordero), and snazzy percussive foot action -- however slight -- there wouldn't be much of an act. Thankfully, guest dancer Juan Ogalla added sizzle to the otherwise mostly unsatisfying program.

In “Me baila Juan,” the dimple-faced performer showed shades of Savion Glover, his thrilling toe-balancing bits unexpected. Ripping through the routine as if his legs were on fire, Ogalla also tottered on his heels like a marionette unstrung.

Back to belting, Bermúdez fared better in Spanish. In the suite “Alegrías del Rancho,” she was joined by musical director and singer Ildefonso de los Reyes, a.k.a. “Pelé,” whose throaty rasp was joyfully authentic. Having donned a colorful floral-print gown, Bermúdez handily maneuvered both a large sombrero and a bata de cola (a long ruffled train), before a suit-clad Ogalla stalked the stage like a wild bull. His quicksilver skittering, dizzying kicks and cool swagger again dialed up the movement vocabulary.

The Spanish numbers “Piensa en mi” and “Tequila” also felt real and less disjointed. It's fine to push the envelope, as long as the contents are cohesive. All great flamencans suffer for their art, at least emotionally, but unless Bermúdez's instrument is physically aching from time's relentless march, there are those who would prefer seeing her do what she does best: dance.

-- Victoria Looseleaf

Above: Bermudez at the Ford Friday night. Credit: Devin Ford