While much of the world was fixated on Beijing and the Olympics over the weekend, flamenco lovers were rewarded with fireworks of their own as the New World Flamenco Festival got off to a steamy start at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
For this seventh edition, dubbed, "Somos Flamencos" ("We Are Flamencos"), co-founder and artistic director Yaelisa cherry-picked a group of Spain-based dancers and musicians to present a world-premiere commission of the same name. Most of the performers proved familiar, with each a star in his or her own right (guitarists and singers as well), and solos dominating the proceedings.
Yaelisa's short opening number -- danced in silence, save for some pesky cellphone chirping -- was accented by quivering shoulders and her signature rippling fingers, but seemed strangely mimetic.
The mood quickly turned, however, into a testosterone-fueled stompfest, as David Paniagua attacked the floor with machine-gun precision to the sensitive sounds of guitarists Ricardo Rivera and Miguel Pérez. In a kind of call-and-response mode with singers Manuel Malena, David Lagos and El Picuo, Paniagua then ripped into a frenzied series of turns and backward kicks before removing his velvet jacket.
Yaelisa's more sculptural solo, "Taranto," allowed her to display a lusciously arched back as prelude to an accelerated polyrhythmic show of flashing feet. A wall of sound -- heightened by the singers wailing from some deep, mystical place -- flowed into a musical interlude that also featured the earthy vocalese of Encarna Anillo, her plaintive moans a hotbed of pleasure and pain.
A compact Andrés Peña (the Joe Pesci of flamenco), lunged with primal authority in "Martinete." Unleashing a fusillade of stampings that countered upraised arms, Peña whipped through dizzying turns with a bullish swagger.
While more interaction between the dancers would have been desired, the solo bar was raised by María José Franco, whose troupe opened the 2007 festival. In an anti-diva statement (or perhaps a sartorial nod to going green), José Franco first appeared in last year's gown, albeit showing some serious mettle in the heavily feathered orange frock, before donning a lacy black number. Slicing the air with determined arms, her hair flying, José Franco exploded with unbridled passion and sinewy bends, an alluring fireball of pent-up emotions.
Juan Ogalla's commanding presence also riveted. Stalking the stage stallion-like, the statuesque Spaniard sported a business suit -- one punctuated, that is, with a polka-dot ascot. Dazzling with sharp, jabbing footwork, Ogalla had a haughty demeanor that was belied by a dimpled smile, sensually curling hands and hurricane legs. Indeed, his fleet feet refused to calm down, the percussive heel-toe action in "Alegrías" an Olympian achievement by any standard.
Closing the two-hour program with "Fin de Fiesta," the company, which also included guitar ace Eugenio Iglesias, came together with a scorching bang, Yaelisa and Ogalla holding each other's waists in a noble, if brief, pas de deux. It may have been a slow burn, but "Somos Flamencos" turned up the sizzle, topping it with a big helping of duende (soul).
"Somos Flamencos" performs Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m., $33-$100. Also, Antonio El Pipa Flamenco Company performs Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m. and next Sunday, 6 p.m. $38-$100. All performances at Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine. (949) 854-4646. www.thebarclay.org or www.ticketmaster.com