Irene Rodriguez in "La Pena Negra" at Jacob's Pillow
Can a dance company exist purely on the star power of its leader?
In the case of Compania Irene Rodriguez, the answer is yes.
The Cuban-branded flamenco ensemble, dancing this week at Jacob’s Pillow, does not possess the heat of other ensembles of the same genre. But it does have Rodriguez who, it can be argued, seizes enough heart and imagination to carry a whole troupe – almost.
When Rodriguez is on the stage, every other dancer becomes a mere adornment. Rodriquez is the fire. The way she flicks her fringed shawl or pounds out her beats balancing on the tips of her toes is hypnotic. She is a force of nature.
The others dancers cannot rival her technique. When she is not there with them, like in “Entre Espinas, Rosas,” the dancers deployed in precision patterns and rhythms look pretty, yet the attack does not have the searing stab that one expects from an experienced, long-lived flamenco dancer.
While the company might not have the crushing vigor and intensity, the troupe of seven dancers and four musicians does have a homey, appealing warmth and friendliness. It also sports a playfulness.
Take “El Mito,” the opening piece. The curtain rises only partially, revealing only the bare legs and shod feet rapping out, in visual and aural unison, a cadence. An interloper’s legs appear, taking center stage and then, by surprise, her feet and legs fly up and out of sight. As the others disperse, her shoes clunk to the floor.
It’s cute and clever and gets the audience laughing. It’s also not what one expects.
Neither is “El Grito,” based on the Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Here, Rodriquez and company tap out a refrain of pain and anxiety that ends with the dancers twisting their faces into the contorted image of the famed painting. Again, it was a surprise, but in this case, not a welcomed one.
All of this is performed to live music by a blasé band with guitar, saxophone and drums. Andres Correa, the singer, stood out, however. His soulful, plaintive style filled every corner of the theater, reverberating through the listeners’ core during the musical interludes “Homenaje a Jose Greco” and “Caminos.”
This wavering of between stirring sentiment and middling scenarios made for an uneven evening.
Rodriquez’s nearly made up for it in the end with in her final solo “Amaranto,” To music by Noel Gutierrez, Rodriguez proved her singular power to enchant. Clearly, it is her command of the art and the stage that brought her to Jacob’s Pillow. But without a more ardent ensemble, I’m not sure she will be invited back.