Up close and personal

Stripped bare, the flamenco superstar is more of a puppy than a sleek hound

<strong>Joaquín Corté

In the 1990s, Joaquín Cortés made flamenco the new rock'n'roll. Flaunting his studliness like a lead guitarist, he strutted shirtless onstage, dated models and film stars (Naomi Campbell, Mira Sorvino), and played guest roles on screen (Pedro Almodóvar's The Flower of My Secret). The supermodel Elle Macpherson said he was "pure sex", Madonna and J-Lo declared themselves fans. His friend Giorgio Armani designed his clothes and the film director Bernardo Bertolucci even wrote him an ode. No wonder the media chased him. No wonder, too, that his ego loomed large: it was both part of the stage show and part of the public persona.

But in the run-up to Joaquín Cortés Unleashed, his recent show at the Roundhouse, he revealed a different profile. Interviewers found him sweet; they called him a "pussycat" and a "nice young man". Cortés turns 40 this month; his mother, to whom he was fiercely attached, died two months ago. Perhaps all this signalled a change of direction? Certainly, he promised, the Roundhouse show would be more up close and personal than his previous stadium-style gigs at the Royal Albert Hall.

He was as good as his word, but only in the most literal sense. Joaquín Cortés Unleashed is actually very similar to Mi Soledad, the show he presented at the Albert Hall in 2005 and 2007, but in a smaller venue - no video relays required here - and with warmer delivery. Yes, we are closer, and he is more personal; but it's a shift of presentation, not a change of heart.

That still makes a difference, though. After a longish musical opening in which the singers and instrumentalists drum up a rock-solid wall of sound, Cortés strides on to a darkened stage, strips of light marking out a cross on the floor. Grandly, he pounds his feet, lifts up his eyes and stretches his arms out wide. In the Albert Hall, where he'd been bare-chested, this gave him the air of a showbiz messiah. Here, his body partly covered by a stylishly long coat (his torso is not as taut as it once was), he pops the bubble of portentousness with devilish glances and grins. It's like a wink of complicity at the crowd, and it makes him a bit more Vampire Lestat and a bit less J C Superstar - a marked improvement, in my book.

In the next section, the female vocalists step forward for a lament. Cortés reverentially touches the dress of the oldest; he leans equably against the second and kneels before the last, clasping her skirt about him like a blanket. At the Albert Hall, the women had seemed like nuns in black, and there was an ambience, again, of generic religiosity. Here, they were dressed as individuals and we read them differently - in my mind, as three ages of a mother and son. It was much more personable, even if the choreography - little more than a few sequential poses - is as flimsy as ever.

A plaintive accordion melody then gives way to a more folksy number, Cortés kicking and bucking in cowboy hat and bumpkin jacket, feet thundering like horses' hooves. At one point he frisbees his hat right off stage, in the manner of Michael Jackson; but he also undercuts his own swagger, racking up speed and tension only to defuse it with a slow, ever-so-casual pirouette.

Despite cheers and whoops on the night, the show hasn't really taken off. Fortunately, Cortés shifts gear and lifts the second half into something worth seeing. The women leave the stage, and he coasts on the thrumming energy of the male musicians as they clap, beat and strum. The music is more accompanist than sparring partner, and though there is little of that back-and-forth jousting between dancer and musician that can so enliven a flamenco performance, Cortés makes the rhythm almost palpable: catching drumbeats in midair with off-the-cuff curls of his fingers, or flip-flopping his palms to a syncopation. And he is good at orchestrating his body into little musical stories: a haughty heel flick follows a courtly bow, an idle shrug rounds off an urgent spin. He clearly digs this music, just as he enjoys playing with the audience, relishing both the control and the connection.

Joaquín Cortés Unleashed is simply the convivial version of a more highly produced show. As before, Cortés still bares his chest but not his soul; he is a better performer than a choreographer. But he does now reveal a different side: Cortés unleashed is not the sleek hound you might have expected - he's more of a puppy.

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