Review by Sam Waite
Arlene Phillips’ prolific career has found her directing and choreographing across mediums – alongside work on recent productions of Grease and Guys & Dolls, her credits include directing the UK tour of The Cher Showand choreographing John Huston’s film adaptation of Annie. Still fuelled by a passion for dance and showing no signs of slowing following a recent Special Olivier for her illustrious career, Phillips’ newest project is the genre-melding House of Flamenka, newly opened at the Peacock Theatre.
Flamenka’s loosely presented plotline finds a Goddess and her subjects living in decadence within the titular House and finding themselves required to dance for the satisfaction of unseen gods in the hope of being rewarded with the chance to continue this opulence lifestyle. A dialogue-free piece of work, this set-up is outlined in the programme notes, and the story is vaguely presented enough that you don’t feel you’ve missed anything if you simply sit back and enjoy the dance numbers for what they are.
Alongside co-creator Karen Ruimy as the nameless (or is she Flamenka?) Goddess, the company consists of male-presenting dancers from the worlds of both contemporary and flamenco dancing. The ensemble are all incredible talented, moving fluidly and experimentally between genres of music and dance, as well as gender roles within partner work. While the dancers’ credits are split between the contemporary and flamenco representatives, the range of movement on display extends beyond these two categories – tap, for example, plays a role within the show, along with forays into ballroom (think Paris is Burning, rather than Strictly Come Dancing) with great success.
Ruimy, too, is a wonderful dancer and a dynamic, charismatic presence on stage, but tends to be let down by the implication of plot within her appearances. Grand entrances are made, but the story being told is never apparent enough to explain the excitement she ought to elicit, distracting from her strong presence and the hypnotic nature of her movements. A singer-songwriter among many other pursuits, Ruimy’s music features occasionally during House of Flamenka, but with the rest of the numbers performed to existing tracks it becomes confusing that she is performing her songs with a microphone in hand. Limiting her movements and further mudding the underlying plotline, these moments tend to slow the momentum the rest of the work builds.
Phillips’ directorial hand puts any lagging quickly back on track, placing high-energy work alongside sequences that could bog the evening down. James Cousins and Fransisco Hidalgo share choreography credit, with Hidalgo working on the flamenco segments and featuring prominently within the performance. Between them, the pair have crafted a series of intricate, exciting dance numbers which showcase the terrific range of their cast and show an eagerness to embrace each other’s’ backgrounds and meld their disparate genres together. Working to a combination of Latin, flamenco, and pop songs, the blending of genres feels easy and natural here – even when a routine feels experimental, it is grounded in this exploration of what already exists.
Costuming from Jasmine Swan is decadent, delightful, and just the right side of excessive. The male dancers are outfitted in simple yet bold looks, adding to their grace and beauty while playing into the masculinity and bulk clear in some of the troupe. Her work with these dancers is continually strong, as willing to play with gender and with genre as everything else in the piece, but the most immediately noticeable costumes are for Ruimy. The Goddess cycles through an array of flashy dresses, all of which showcase her fluidly she moves and sell her as the ruler of the House – however not every wardrobe choice is a winner. A single misstep is made in a golden jumpsuit donned at the end of act one, which raised two questions: Why a new outfit for such a brief moment? And why a look that seems so pointed to the 1970’s when the routine and pulsing beat suggest an entirely modern setting?
Lighting is well-utilised by Doug FF Cairns, with dancers hidden in shadows or presented in silhouette to lend an air of mystery to a new routine’s introduction, or the draw attention to just how sharp and synchronised movements are at opposite ends of the stage. Sound design from Richard Brooker is mostly good, allowing us to be drawn into the club-like world of the House of Flamenka but still to hear the finger clicks, castanets, and pounding of feet that punctuate certain moments. It’s a shame that, particularly towards the end of act two, the music can be just a bit too loud, not only obscuring these percussive touches, but creating audible distortion through the speakers. In a show where less is most definitely less, this may be one area where something should be dialled back.
An engaging watch as a plotless dance show, but a confusing experience should you try to follow any narrative being presented, House of Flamenka is worth the price of admission to see these world class artists demonstrate the beauty and power in their craft. While the set-up may be unclear and certain choices hard to fully understand, the passion for dance and the sheer ability of this ensemble are impossible to deny. For dance, it’s a 10. For the whole package, that’s more of a mixed bag.
House of Flamenka plays at the Peacock Theatre until October 28th
For tickets and information visit https://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/house-of-flamenka-2023/
Photos by Danny Kaan