Carlota Santana laughs demurely when asked if she was surprised when back-to-back sold-out houses for Flamenco Vivo, her company’s first performance at Duke last year, introduced jaded regional dance lovers to the kind of behavior normally reserved for athletic competitions. On two cold, damp nights last March, patrons long accustomed to casually picking up dance tickets on opening night graced the chilly entranceways to the Bryan Center decked out in the latest fashions in tux, mink and evening wear, while holding hastily lettered paper signs with the words “Need Two Tickets.”

“It was very pleasing, there’s no doubt about it,” Santana says, just off the road and still refreshingly nonplussed at her company’s good fortune. In February they toured Florida, Texas and Tennessee. “They were packed to the gills in Knoxville, and their ovation was so strong,” she remembers, with more than a trace of bewilderment in her voice. “Which is lovely, but–in Knoxville? We didn’t expect that there.”

Such success stories are a bit more commonplace now than they were a year ago, after her New York-based company established a Southern base of operations and then stunned the new neighborhood with Mano a Mano, an evening-length flamenco ballet based on the life of Manolete, the legendary Castilian bullfighter, at Reynolds Theater. Critics swooned. Audiences cheered. Swells stood out in the cold and prayed for tickets. And promoters suddenly realized that Spanish and Hispanic arts were una fuerza en el mercado–a force in the marketplace.

Santana’s crew returns home this weekend when they perform a new work, Bailaor/Bailaora (Male Dancer, Female Dancer), in the A.J. Fletcher Opera House at Raleigh’s BTI Center. They no longer have–or need–the element of surprise: Their Raleigh dates are the company’s last steps before a week at the Joyce Theater, New York City’s famed home church of modern dance. They open there next Tuesday. Here’s what you’ll see before New York does, provided you remember, of course, to get your tickets in advance:

The changing roles–and artistic representations–of women and men are the inspiration for choreographer Antonio Hidalgo’s Bailaor/Bailaora. Drawing from old photographs and dance documentation from the 1920s forward, the brooding choreographer charts the course flamenco dance has taken since the dawn of the 20th century. When Hidalgo and company put the last century of Spanish dance culture on fast-forward, the contrasts between the early dance forms of zapateado and zambra and flamenco’s modern expressions become more immediate, more profound.

In separate sections devoted to men’s and women’s dance, Hidalgo places the century’s major movements in each art form at close proximity. Santana analyzes what their juxtapositions suggest.

“You see how women have changed, themselves, in the dance, the attitude, the dress,” she notes. “The strength is there the whole time, but at the beginning it’s more reserved–softer, sweeter. The men as well: At the beginning their movement, their footwork is very reserved. By the end, it’s something that’s been unleashed–something very powerful.”

When the dancers step as one, the sound is like gunfire. When the company enacts more intricate steps, their complex polyrhythms make a web as compellingly complex as any that composer Steve Reich ever dreamed of. At its most challenging, Hidalgo’s work is as much a musical achievement as it is a choreographic one. To do it justice, we must almost credit him as composer as well as choreographer. When accompanied by a hot Spanish jazz sextet including guitarist Calvin Hazen, flutist Terry Butler, and vocalist Curo Cueto, we have more than a flamenco ballet. It’s a flamenco concerto as well. EndBlock

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