[Dance Review] Yo, Carmen — Pagés Breathes Life into Carmen

I carmen

I, Carmen (Yo, Carmen)
María Pagés Compañía
17 October 2014
Esplanade Theatre
17-18 October 2014

To declare one’s identity, one may choose to stomp the ground and yell out who you are. But with wisdom and self-confidence, María Pagés chooses to gracefully present what it means to be a woman and embrace its humanity in all its manifestations.

I, Carmen is a lush blend of music, dance, poetry, and tongue-in-cheek complaints. Rather than negating all that is not, Pagés offers a positive and soulful expression of womanhood. By incorporating the  meditative potential of contemporary dance, her choreography ranges from a quiet but profound contemplation to one of strength and passion. I realised that half of her choreography consists of basic steps that any flamenco student would be familiar with. It is very easy to dismiss such steps but to execute it beautifully, as her dancers have done, is no mean feat.

Beauty in simplicity is definitely the order of the day as Pagés uses artistry as her needle to weave beauty into the quotidian. I was surprised to see a scene of all the dancers were doing housework which can be read as a re-establishment of traditional gender roles. However,  she turned it into a celebration of the everyday by taking all the rags and tying them up to form a manton (shawl).

Yet, life has its moments of sadness and vulnerability too. That  is where Pagés shines the most. Ever hand movement, every crinkle in her face, and every turn is a process of digging deep and expressing the most moving of emotions. Even in stillness, as she examines herself in the mirror and donning the height of traditional Spanish fashion only to take it off again, one remains transfixed. I cannot help but notice two sides of her; the one in the flesh and the one in the mirror.

I would do this show an injustice without mentioning that it achieved something rare in dance: incorporating poems as another layer of the dance without privileging the latter. A sound recording of women reading works by female poets in the original languages was played as the dancers danced to it. Here, Pagés displays a rare sensitivity in respecting the text. The rhythms of the poem was incorporated as the driving beat of the dance and the stresses of the words replaces the palmas (hand clapping) that usually accompany the dance. Though it must be said that the surtitles are slightly  distracting.

Finally, due credit must be paid to the production elements. As a response to Bizet’s Carmen, most of the music was an adaptation of the original score to flamenco guitar. A great deal of thoughtfulness went into the arrangement as the frenzy during the climaxes of the original score is re-expressed into a sense of quiet joy. Those with a keen ear would be in for small treats as the musicians occasionally includes motifs such as the chime of a clock tower before the housewives scene to represent the passing of time.

While Pagés’s costume designs seemed simple enough with bold lines running across a skin coloured dress, the wonderful injection of light often creates the illusion of the dancers wearing different costumes. In one number, the reddish-brown wash from the side booms mixed with the bold lines on the dress gave me the impression that the dancers were wearing a different dress with two colour blocks. I was pleasantly surprised that they were wearing the same dress as the lights changed for the next number. Clearly, artistry does not begin and end with the dancing in this production.

It is worth noting that María Pagés started her career with Antonio Gades who, in his time, created the flamenco version of Carmen that is still based strongly on Bizet’s opera and all the loaded implications that come with it. With I, Carmen, Spain can truly say that she has reclaimed Carmen for herself.

Brava Maria, Brava.


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