Looking at a projected photo of her younger self on Tuesday, Carlota Santana laughed. It’s been a long time since she founded the dance company Flamenco Vivo with Roberto Lorca, and a long time since his death, in 1987. Ms. Santana’s troupe is celebrating its 35th anniversary with an ambitious program at BAM Fisher this week, including guest artists and an hourlong new work dedicated to “Mujeres Valientes,” or valiant women. Surely, Ms. Santana counts as one of those. Keeping a company going ain’t easy.
“Mujeres Valientes,” by the noted flamenco choreographer Belén Maya, honors two women whom Ms. Santana described in her introductory speech as feminist foremothers: the 17th-century Mexican poet-philosopher Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the 19th-century South American revolutionary Manuela Sáenz. Those are fascinating historical characters, but this is a dull dance.
Ms. Maya’s choreography is firm and shapely, and it’s closely tied to Gaspar Rodríguez’s evocative score, which he and four other fine musicians play live. It’s a dance-drama, though, and the drama is the problem.
With Sor Juana, Ms. Maya faces the age-old challenge of how to represent a writer dramatically. Establishing the character as a bibliophile is easy. Sor Juana (Eliza González) cradles books, caresses them, pulls them out of her pockets and uses them as a fan. But the dance indicates none of her intelligence or the wit in the words borrowed for lyrics. To express her defiance of foolish men, she circles male dancers and tosses paper at them.
Sáenz (Elisabet Torras), a woman of action and romance, doesn’t fare much better. Her relationship with the great liberator Simón Bolivar occasions one strong moment: When he goes down on a knee, she makes him take off her shoes. Yet their duet devolves into commonplaces of power-balance choreography. She dons a military uniform and blows cigar smoke in his face. He doesn’t like it.
Over the years, Ms. Santana has been savvy in supplementing her workaday company with superior guest artists. That strategy saves the day this year, too. After intermission on Tuesday, Guadalupe Torres raised the energy level with the banked fires of her solo to “La Caña.” Then came José Maldonado, the true great liberator of evening.
In his “Farruca” solo, Mr. Maldonado was impressive. He bent his torso back like the taut, tense bow of an archer. He shot into poses with the speed of an arrow. If his performance was a little too choreographed for my taste and occasionally false in manner, those faults were offset by bursts of brilliance and uncommon invention.
Mr. Maldonado’s real rescue job, though, was what he did for the company. “Pa’ Triana Voy,” the ensemble work he choreographed, is the rare flamenco group piece that doesn’t stifle the individual flamenco spirit. Performing it, the Flamenco Vivo dancers, so tentative and affected in “Mujeres Valientes,” seemed released, alive, loose, charming. That attitude carried through to the traditional “Fin de Fiesta” finale, with everyone taking a turn and having a great time. Now that’s the way to celebrate an anniversary.
Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana
Through May 20 at BAM Fisher, Brooklyn; bam.org.