Great art and ritual go hand in hand. Perhaps that is why the annual New York appearances of Spanish dancer Pilar Rioja have always been welcome rituals.
The theater in which Rioja performs has some of the intimacy of a village church; its compact stage is akin to a pulpit. Yet there's nothing sanctimonious about this captivating woman's style. It is not herself but her metier that she takes seriously and performs reverently.
Rioja is a soloist, but in a sense she has partners. They are her five deeply attuned guitarists and singers. They are also her costume designer, Guillermo Barclay, and her lighting designer, Robert Weber Federico. All work with an understated elegance, constantly creating a fluent setting for their crown jewel.
In her flamenco repertoire, which formed the entire program, Rioja does not resort to hair-tossing, flower-flinging antics. Yet there is ample temperament in the way she spirals her wrists, snaps her fan, and flails her bata in the sophisticated Guajira.
Her Taranto spews forth cascades of taconeo (heel work). At the same time, she holds her sleekly coiffed head proudly erect, while her hands in turn command, supplicate, even accuse. And she finishes boldly downstage center, opening her arms as though she were about to envelope the audience.
Carmen Amaya often performed in trousers, and the effect underscored her rough-hued singing. Maria Teresa Acuna's effect in similar attire was playful. But when, in the Farruca, Rioja appeared in trousers, topped by a soft, silk shirt and with a gentle fall of light on her shoulders, she seemed almost winged. And as she traced a melting path around her instrumentalists, she resembled a Byronic creature temporarily immersed in a swirl of tradition and bravery.
After Rioja's final solo, Bulerias y Rumbas, with its heel-chattering promenades and snapping torso, the audience rose as one to salute this incomparable artist. Although she thanked them with a brief, bright encore, it was still hard for them to let her go. See www. repertorio.org.