There is currently in Paris, at the Petit Palais, a stunning exhibition devoted to the paintings of John Singer Sargent and his Spanish contemporary, Joaquin Sorolla. In them, the play of light and shadow is nowhere more evocatively seen than in Sargent’s canvas of a Spanish dancer. Out of the nocturnal darkness of a garden, the figure of a woman emerges, movement vivid in her outstretched arms and the hint of her torso. I thought of her as I watched Friday night’s appearance of Carmen Cortes in the Sadler’s Wells’ flamenco season.

Mme Cortes is a great artist. This show features guitarists and singers, seven danseuses, and a theme detailing the world of García Lorca’s women. It has a setting composed of several hundred old shoes piled up round a decrepit piano, and the cast spend a lot of time involving themselves with footwear in various exuberant and tiresome ways. Fun for fetishists, perhaps, but a yawn for the rest of us.

Everything is well managed. The lighting is good. The women dance well. The singers vividly yowl and bay, and the guitarists splendidly play. The show lasts 80 minutes, with Lorca decently present. And who, frankly, cares? What matters is Carmen Cortes as she burns over the stage, hands like doves in flight, torso curved, the dance flaring through her being, her feet summoning the earth spirits that then inhabit her body.

She is a unique, wonderful, and in one solo – in which she destroys herself – she becomes (not seems, but becomes) the spirit of dance itself.

Nothing beautiful. The urgency, the cussed rawness of her manner – the way rhythm surges and fights its way through her limbs, legs splayed as the movement takes hold, feet commanding the earth, arms beating, the daemon possessing her – is as elemental as a flood, a volcanic eruption.

I watched her on Friday night as one watches some tremendous event in nature, held in awe by grandeur of scale, inevitability. Nothing mattered more than this prodigious artist, and the god was with her (Isadora Duncan’s phrase when she was possessed by movement and music). We were privileged to see Mme Cortes, to watch this transmutation of the usual matter of flamenco into the intoxicating spirit of dance itself.
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