Flamenco diva Sara Baras pays homage to the past

Sara Baras in "Voces," which will be at the Flamenco Festival Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center Thursday through Saturday
Sara Baras in "Voces," which will be at the Flamenco Festival Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center Thursday through Saturday

If any dancer in Spain has achieved the status of a cultural icon, it is Sara Baras. She is the female answer to media sensation Joaquín Cortés, embraced not just in the dance world, but by television, fashion and film. Two years ago, Mattel even crafted a Barbie doll in her image.

With feet like jackhammers, arms that would be the envy of Michelle Obama and a back as supple as a swan’s neck, her body seems to have been handcrafted for flamenco. She can embody sultry sophistication in one moment and in the next turn on an unaffected charm as warm as the summer breeze in her hometown of Cádiz.

Baras, 43, brings her company, Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras, to the Adrienne Arsht Center Thursday to Saturday for the annual Flamenco Festival Miami. With seven musicians and eight dancers, including José Serrano, her partner on stage and off, she will present a new concert length work, Voces (Voices).

Asked in a telephone interview to analyze her monumental success, Baras cites hard work and passion. “I never stop. I love to dance,” she says. In fact, until the birth of her son four years ago, she had never taken more than a 10-day break from dancing since she started classes with her mother Concha at age 9.

But Baras also credits the people who help bring her vision to life, from her lighting designer to her extraordinary ensemble of musicians to her fellow dancers. Her partner Serrano, billed as guest artist, brings an animalistic, masculine energy to the stage that both contrasts with and complements that of Baras. The level of virtuosity, too, of her small corps of dancers is astonishing. When they dance in a group, their synchronicity is absolute, their line at once authentic and exquisite, like the flowing calligraphy carved into the walls of the Alhambra. Their work is evidence of Baras’ eye for detail, the clarity of her artistic vision and her ability to transmit that vision to the people she works with.

Voces is Baras’s homage to six master flamenco artists, now gone, who left an indelible stamp on the genre and on her as a dancer. They touched her not only with their artistry, but as colleagues, mentors and friends.

These performers were in the vanguard of flamenco’s evolution as an art form — guitarists Paco de Lucía and Moraíto, singers Camarón de la Isla and Enrique Morente, and dancers Antonio Gades and Carmen Amaya.

“All have broken with tradition and shown us something new, something different, and have caused flamenco to grow,” Baras says.

Paco de Lucía revolutionized not only guitar technique but also the very sound of flamenco, with his incorporation of the Peruvian cajón and the jazz saxophone, instruments that had never before been heard in this context. Likewise, aficionados speak of flamenco cante (singing) as following a distinct timeline: that which came before Camarón de la Isla burst onto the scene in the 1970s with his hoarse, gut-wrenching style, and the singing that came after he opened the floodgates to a whole generation of long-haired, rough-and-tumble troubadours. Antonio Gades, too, was a game changer who took dramatic works by artists like playwright/poet Federico García Lorca and made them into full-length flamenco ballets, works that live on through his similarly groundbreaking collaboration with film director Carlos Saura.

The only subject of Voces whom Baras did not know personally is the one whose career perhaps most resembles hers: Carmen Amaya. Escaping war-torn 1930s Spain, Amaya eventually landed in Hollywood and thus became the first truly international flamenco star. Her dance company toured the world to packed houses, she was featured in movies, she broke taboos by dancing in pants and she further defied tradition by showing that a woman’s footwork could not only be as fast and powerful as a man’s, but more so.

Baras, too, has been immortalized in film, has been at the helm of an extraordinarily successful dance company in a time of economic meltdown, and has continued the revolution in women’s dance begun by Amaya, who died in 1963 at just 50 years old.

Like Amaya, Baras dances on the razor’s edge of tradition versus innovation, purity versus progress. In Voces, audiences will see an artist who prepares fastidiously, then pushes herself to live dangerously, a hallmark of the flamenco ethos.

“When you always take risks, of course you can lose,” she says. “But if you have your feet on the ground and lots of work behind you, normally you win.”

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If you go

What: Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras in ‘Voces’

When: 8 p.m. Thursday to Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Knight Concert Hall, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Info: $35 to $95, 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org