West Park Presbyterian Church
New York, New York
July 15, 2015
by Tom Phillips
copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips
Whether to go along with the tyrant in power, or risk your life defying his whims, is the argument between two sisters – and the first high point of this fiery flamenco version of Sophocles’ Antigone.
Antigone – or Antigona, in Spanish -- cannot bear to see the body of her brother Polyneices left to rot on the battlefield, where he and his brother Eteocles slew each other battling for power in Thebes. Ismene, her sister, would prefer not to look, to avoid the wrath of King Creon, who ordered a military funeral for Eteocles and a dog’s fate for Polyneices. The sisters confront each other with electric foot-stamping and acrobatic turns -- the power of Ismene’s conventional thinking against the lonely righteousness of Antigone. And of course it is Ismene who survives, who slides back into the chorus, observing the woes that befall others.
Photo: Soledad Barrio as Antigona by Zarmik Moqtaderi
Few dancers can match the intensity of Soledad Barrio’s flamenco, but Marina Elana as Ismene takes a good shot at it, following up a devastating monologue in English (“I’m bilingual,” she simpers) in which she bitches about her sister’s self-sacrifice. It is the viciousness of her bile, combined with the cowardice of her position, that makes the tragedy credible, and contemporary. Mean girls rule.
That’s true, of course, only in the short term, and in what we call the “real world.” In the ideal, eternal world where Greek tragedy takes place, Antigone is the heroine, larger than life, greater than death. And this is where Soledad Barrio comes in.
Walking to the theater at West Park Presbyterian Church, we happened to see her on the side steps, a half hour before the show, an unlit cigarette between her lips, her face a mask of anxiety. Two hours later, her eyes were brimming with tears as she took her curtain call. This is a woman who puts everything she has into the art form she has mastered. And she has much to give.
Flamenco is not usually a narrative art, and Barrio is not an actress. She has only one spoken line in the show, which relies on dance, song and mime to tell the story. But she embodies Antigone, her staccato stomping, whirling turns, deep back bends, her desperate facial expression conveying everything the character represents. Antigone is a heroine for our times: a woman standing up against injustice in a world ruled by arrogant men.
“Antigona” is the brainchild of Barrio’s husband and collaborator, Martin Santangelo, clearly a bid to vault Noche Flamenca from the small world of flamenco into the great stage of theater. It’s an inspired choice of material, and he has a brilliant collaborator in Lee Breuer, director of the experimental theater company Mabou Mines. Breuer is a master of stagecraft – and here he uses shimmering fabrics, masks, and dark, dramatic lighting on a multi-level stage to create the atmosphere of tragedy. Tiresias, the blind prophet, sings from a platform high above the main arena, until he comes down to confront Creon at the end – denouncing him for his pride and lack of wisdom, scorning his empty put-downs. This mano a mano between Manuel Gago as Creon and Pepe el Bocadillo as Tiresias is another highlight – a battle in song, the high-pitched wail of flamenco singing, with a tattoo of percussion and flamenco guitar in the background. Noche Flamenca begins with music, the elegant chords and subtle syncopations of guitar, hand-clapping and hand-drumming under the keening vocals. This is men’s work, hammering out a floor of sound for the star of the show.
Why, some may wonder, is the company called Noche Flamenca, not Flamenco? The simple answer is that noche is feminine in Spanish, and takes a feminine adjective. But the real reason is that this is a company organized around a woman. By sheer force of will, Barrio makes flamenco a feminine art form. For men it tends to turn into a macho trip – for example, the deafening zapaterea of Juan Ogalla as Antigone’s doomed lover Haeman. There’s pride in his protest, unlike the soulful Barrio, who finds power in a powerless character.
“Antigona” is a free adaptation of Sophocles’ play, and some of it may cross the line into inappropriateness. There’s a burlesque of Creon’s coronation, with him as an arrogant bullfighter, with a chorus of kazoos in the background. And there’s a heavy-metal guitar accompaniment to the fatal duel between Polyneices and Eteocles, which is presented as a street-fight between two hip-hop dancers. These contemporary images seem a little off in the stark atmosphere of classic tragedy, as does a sexy love scene between Antigona and Haemon. Still, audiences may find them relevant. If the point is to bring Noche Flamenca to the eyes of the world, I hope it works.
No mere description will do justice to Soledad Barrio’s dancing. “She’s a force of nature!” was the best a fellow near us could do, repeating it several times. That’s true, but she’s also a force of humanity. Noche Flamenca’s program notes always include Santangelo’s “Brief History of Flamenco” which traces its beginnings to southern Spain in the 15th to 17th centuries. It was a time of persecutions, exterminations, and expulsions, – and he quotes a historian: “If we do not relate the music … to brutality, repression, fear, hunger, menace, inferiority, resistance and secrecy, then we shall not find the reality of flamenco … it is a storm of exasperation and grief.” Today, he finds a parallel to Antigone in Spain’s refusal to honor the anti-Franco fighters who fell in the Spanish Civil War, who still lie in unmarked mass graves – as in the killing fields of so many modern wars.
When I first read "Antigone," long ago in school, it seemed like too much fuss over a dead body. But now I know -- and anyone can see it in Soledad Barrio’s Antigona -- that it’s a battle for civilization.
Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips