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La Cuadra de Sevilla - 'Carmen'

by Emma Pegler

February 2002 -- Sadler's Wells, London

Looking down on the heads of flamenco dancers in a room with no inherent atmosphere is always a recipe for disaster. Flamenco is normally performed on a stage that rises above you. In that way you see the intricate footwork of heels repetitively and rhythmically beating on the hard wood. Wafts of smoke and the heady smell of a ripe Rioja all add to the ambience. Of course, Sadler’s Wells cannot provide that. And now that it has a plush, comfortable auditorium, it looks less like a bohemian bar in downtown Sevilla than ever.

But I am being a flamenco snob. In Salvador Tavola’s dance-drama version of “Carmen,” the dance is not an end in itself -- it is used in service to the story. Most “Carmen” productions follow Prosper Merimee’s well-known story about the gypsy from Seville -- Bizet’s opera being the first and most popular version. Tavola tells the novel story of the working-class heroine that his great-great (opinions vary as to the number of “greats”) grandmother had known. Instead of the gypsy seductress of Merimee’s story, Carmen is a solid “cigarrera” who works at the Seville Tobacco Factory and is a member of the cigar-makers’ trade union.

The Don Jose she falls for in this story is a Basque soldier, and the bullfighter that eventually catches her eye is a picador this time. Picadors ride horses so that they are elevated above the bull to enable them to stick the elaborately decorated pegs into the back of the bull’s neck which causes the animal to bleed, thereby weakening it sufficiently to allow the matador to finish the job. So you know what kind of guy he is! Tavola is well-known in bullfighting circles, but, I am reliably informed by a Spaniard in the know, if he did, as certain sources claim, have a bullfighting career, it must have been shortlived because said Spaniard knew nothing of it.

Tavola's take on the Carmen story is good enough. It is not a bad idea to use flamenco to narrate the story of “Carmen”. Indeed, Carlos Saura’s film starring Antonio Gades manages it admirably. (In the film, a dance school is in training to put the flamenco version of the story on stage. The teacher/choreographer falls for the dancer playing Carmen and disaster ensues. I will not spoil the story by revealing the outcome. Truly, it is a brilliant film.) However, whatever you do with the story of "Carmen", the Carmen, whether she be dancer, singer or actress, has to have dramatic presence and to be charming and charismatic, even if she is not, ultimately, a sexy seductress of a gypsy. Lalo Tejada as Carmen does not cut the figure that is needed, which means that the rather indifferent flamenco we see and hear becomes all the more noticeable.

There were some memorable theatrical moments. The beautiful horse dancing on stage, which is the scene depicted on the eye-catching advertising poster plastered around London, is great theatre. The bugle band, screeching its music as the curtain rises at the beginning, provides atmosphere (although I looked forward to snatches of the score from Bizet’s opera which periodically restored the damage from the assault to the eardrums made by the bugles). Yet taking twenty long minutes to die histrionically as several of the characters do is unforgivable, particularly when coupled with sloppy footwork. I have seen much better flamenco. This flamenco consists of constant heel drumming, amplified by microphone, with no drama in the steps and movement by which the performers cross the stage and interact with each other.

Good flamenco does not need a microphone, and amplifying the droning noise of repetitive heel beats which demonstrate neither rhythm nor variation, just shouts “naff”. Don Jose and Carmen circulate around each other in what the music tells us is a passionate moment. They tap their heels at each other, each with an arm stuck rigidly in the air. Alas, their stodgy movements represent neither a development of the dance that is flamenco, nor a portrayal of it in its beautiful authenticity.

The newspaper critics have concentrated on the interesting storyline and the originality of the production. They seem to skirt politely around the quality of the flamenco dancing. Rumour has it that Tavola has choreographed a piece for a bull and a picador and horse in his native Sevilla. Now that WOULD be interesting.

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