mon 26/02/2024

Fuenteovejuna, Antonio Gades Company, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

Fuenteovejuna, Antonio Gades Company, Sadler's Wells

Fuenteovejuna, Antonio Gades Company, Sadler's Wells

Class war, sexual violation and political myth should ring out powerfully in the language of flamenco

'Tis I: The shout of individuality, yet blood-brotherhood, is flamenco in its essence© Tomoaki Minoda/SWT

Flamenco is a fervently political dance language, riddled with subversion of class and gender rankings, honouring old people, hallowing sexual prowess, relishing mavericks, and yet commanding a special symbolic force when it's disciplined into a cuerpo de baile.

The story of Fuenteovejuna is of uprising by peasants goaded too far by a vicious military whose assumption of the right to rape and pillage leads to comeuppance - a murder in which every one of the villagers takes shared responsibility and shouts, “Yo!” - “It was I!” That shout of individuality, yet blood-brotherhood, is flamenco in its essence.

The incident actually happened in the 15th century, immortalised 150 years later by the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega, and no doubt it was a bloodier and messier affair than its mythologising in flamenco by Antonio Gades in 1994. However, Gades, one of Spain’s greatest flamenco soloists and a great man of theatre (as his reimagining of Carmen and Blood Wedding showed), was fired up both aesthetically and politically. An ardent socialist, he loved the inseparability of flamenco's poetry and Spain’s folkdance from the struggle to survive the land, bulls, marauding soldiers, prison, and all the worst perils of an underclass, but he also relished the theatrical panorama of dances and music across centuries that this tale allowed.

The girls do their laundry in a gorgeous dance with sheets that cascade and tumble like the sparkling river

So in Fuenteovejuna he has created a lyrical 90-minute dance-opera using a proud sweep of Spain's history from baroque court rounds to rude tavern folk ditties and flamenco, deployed to tell of innocent newlyweds and rapacious Spanish military, of the community’s earthy peasant ways and the refined classical art period in which the event took place. The girls do their laundry in a gorgeous dance with sheets that cascade and tumble like the sparkling river. The evil Comendador swathes himself in slow motion in gleaming armour and prances out, like a caparisoned stallion, to seize his droit de seigneur from the village.

Old and young men yammer in the tavern about the seizure of young bride Laurencia, in a table-thumping ensemble of fiercely clapping hands and solo yowls of “Ayeee!” that manage to be all mouth and no trousers. Gades had a rare gift for marshalling ensembles with exact expressive force, and he chops up their garrulous indecision with swift silent-movie tableaux as the Comendador rapes Laurencia. She rounds in horrified fury, rather than collapsing, and the young girls form, all of a sudden, a tidal wave of violated heroines beating down their menfolk’s resistance.

Sight and sound make an ardent spectacle and ritual telling of this important story - its importance comes from the Aragonese judges’ decision to capitulate when they found that all the Fuenteovejunians insisted on taking culpability for the Comendador’s murder. Though torture did for several of the men and boys in reality, the village became legendary for brandishing communal retribution like a declaration of freedom from slavery.

Gades handles his totemic parable with dextrous, exciting stagecraft, with Dominique You's cunningly spare lighting which creates sudden rooms, a small, hot tavern, a wide and unguarded open air, and Pedro Moreno's plain and effective farming props. It’s all of a piece with its tapestry of music, part live, part recorded - the lyrical songs of the land, the delightful community dances (in one, men skip abruptly up and down while women sway forward and back). While it’s kneecapped twice by bewilderingly gauche interpolations of the Russian Modest Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition used as “horrid music”, the baroque dances are a delightful mix with the hefty strumming live guitars and drums.

Fuenteovejuna Gades companyFlamenco folkdance is one unique form where you instinctively look to the older ones to show the young a trick or two, a human dimension and enjoyment of age difference that hugely enhances the suspense of this particular story. The performers switch democratically between singing, dancing, playing, enjoying their differences and their unanimity, as if all is a natural part of human expression, as if only these peasants are complete human beings. By contrast the Spanish commander and his attendants, stiffly trotting or rattling their heels, are made to seem almost robotic, their humanity gone.

The choreography by Gades is beautifully attentive to curling arms and lush breasts as well as the feet that attack the floor like thunderous hooves. All the young women of the company have a honeyed maidenliness about their motion, epitomised in Cristina Carnero’s very graceful Laurencia (pictured above with Angel Gil's Frondoso, © Javier del Real/SWT) - many of them are fair, with few hints of Moorish Cordoba. The men on the whole dance more interestingly the older and fatter they are - Gil as Frondoso is elegant but rather a clean, upright boy, lacking the electric heroic switch-on of a great star like Gades (or of Vakhtang Chabukiani in the Soviet ballet Laurencia). It was more damaging to last night’s story impact that Miguel Angel Rojas’s Comendador lacked the reptilian villainy that his strikingly choreographed role seems to call for.

This is only the UK's second view of the piece since its creation. For me, the show last night felt too gentle and well-bred a ritual, lacking bitter momentousness - in the reality of today, the horrors of Syria, the Libyan uprising, the casual abuse of Saudi women, the performers of Fuenteovejuna should be tearing up the stage with their relevance.

Watch Antonio Gades and Cristina Hoyos in an extract from Gades' De Falla flamenco ballet El amor brujo, filmed by Carlos Saura

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