VENUE: Playhouse, Edinburgh, Aug 12-13
By JEAN WEST
“WE HAVE created Yo, Carmen to dignify the woman,” pronounces María Pagés, stamping out her intent in flamenco staccato with the force of a royal edict.
Girl power is the enduring theme of this most visceral and determined take on Bizet’s opera about the Andalusian femme fatale.
Pagés has a mission, to undo the stereotypes about women that prevailed as Spaniard, Prosper Mérimée, penned in his 1845 novella, turned into a smash hit by the French composer.
The internationally feted performer, from Seville, is assured as she rewrites the history of women that has objectified and belittled; creatively, physically and sexually for so long.
The much-loved tragic story of Carmen, the feisty, charismatic gypsy, who dies at the hands of her spurned lover, was not to Pagés taste.
So, she purposefully reworked it into Yo, Carmen (I, Carmen), to demonstrate that all women can take the lead and express, unfettered by society, their own vibrant song.
Fiercely feminist and uncompromising, her character becomes a kind of matador, who slays elderly, out-dated maxims and, slaps you in the face with juggernaut command.
She used this traditional tale to go head-on at social mores that still worship at the shrine of the thin, pert, wrinkle-free, cellulite-free, superficial media Goddess. “I won’t wear a girdle, taking away my breath,” she insists, and it says it all.
A very mixed audience were happy to wrestle her themes, judging from the applause and shrieks of approval throughout the luscious performance.
In witty and interesting asides, Pagés, who has collaborated with luminaries like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Placido Domingo, tells us that many people likened her to Carmen, even as a child.
It was her mother’s name so it took a while for her to understand they were talking about another, more mysterious, exotic female.
Later, as a professional dancer, she regularly explored the role and soon identified Carmen as a wonderful vehicle for change.
And so drama and protest are given free rein as, in collaboration with her husband, academic and poet, El Arbi El Harti, they refashion something equally beautiful; taking charge not only of the choreography, but the direction and costume design, to dilute the earlier male interpretation.
The costumes, from the subdued, flesh coloured gowns, peeled off later to reveal the vivid purple of freedom, and augmented with the blood red and gold finery toreador outfit, peacocked before a mirror in a later scene, and a black flowing robe of despair, were both fresh and bold.
The footwork was extraordinary, as was the flexibility of wrists and arms that performed mighty feats with fans and even a line of laundry.
Huge swathes of fabric that might have tied-up someone less skilled – like Houdini – were swirled around Pagés body with gusto.
Flamenco may share similarities with other cultural dances that pound the ground with a staccato beat, but as a female expression of strength, stature and sexuality, it is hard to rival. And Pagés exploits this.
It was magnificent to watch the 53-year-old, who celebrates her age with the energy of a 20-something, use her wisdom, garnered over the decades, to speak out.
She makes comment: “Don’t ask me to be perfect, when half of humanity is suffering,” and then stamps it into the floorboards, an ear-shattering fable about the ridiculous mores that prevail. Shame on you, she insists.
I had been afraid when I heard about collaboration with Michael Flatly of Riverdance, of something bland and uniform. But, Pagés, it seems, has scoured the world for the best of dance and infused her company with its tincture, without diluting her own very confident personality.
As the palo (rhythm) and palmas (hand claps) became deafening, the siren and her dancers, locked us into a firm, unflinching trance; her bold message resounding through every cell, long after I left the auditorium.
Women of the world, stand your ground!
A bravura act to rival the biggest Festival fireworks!