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Flash Review 1, 3-30: Return of a Legend
Greco Versus Canales in the World Series of Love & Death

By Lourdes Gonzalez
Copyright 2005 Lourdes Gonzalez

Photograph by Luis Malibran

GUADALAJARA, Spain -- Had I known that what began as casual dialogues would end up in print, I would have had the sense to talk less and listen more, or at the very least, to have drunk less and asked more questions. The dialogues in this case were those of my correspondence with the DI's editor, PBI, and more importantly, the indelible impressions culled from an evening spent with Antonio Canales during my recent visit here, starting with a three-hour drive from Valladolid to Madrid, and ending in the only formal restaurant I know of that still serves full-course meals at 2 a.m.

I had not seen Canales perform since 1998, when I worked for him as company manager on Catalan director Lluis Pascual's production of Lorca's "La Casa de Bernarda Alba," in which Canales quite convincingly played a matriarchal iron-fisted nun (yes, in full habit and without the use of dialogue). Therefore I was quite anxious after hearing much a-buzz in Spain about his latest undertaking, a flamenco-dance-theater foray into Merimee's mythical "Carmen," renamed "Carmen, Carmela," which reunites Canales with two other former National Ballet of Spain principals, Lola Greco and Diego Llori.

While the idea of setting the world's most popular opera to dance is nothing new, I was delighted to see Canales -- one of Spain's most beloved and iconic artists, known for his flamboyant showmanship and dynamic style of interpretive flamenco dance theater -- return to his trademark and forte, narrative choreography. And so, on March 18, I set off for Guadalajara, about an hour's drive from the capital, to discover what all the fuss was about.

The atmosphere at the sold-out Buero Vallejo Theater was electric. What sets this "Carmen" apart from the myriad other versions is that it has what the Spanish vernacular refers to as "tela," which can mean anything from heavy-duty or intense to serious, deep-shit trouble. In other words, this version has edge, and a sharp one. It's gutsy from the moment the opening sequence begins, Memento-style, with the final scene of a sobbing, lovelorn Don Jose (Canales) cradling a limp and lifeless Carmen (Greco) in his arms. The action only intensifies in the following scene, in which Canales saunters, brandishing a gun, disoriented and hysterical, shouting "Caaarrmeeen!!" (Which he clearly relishes doing -- Antonio is nothing if not the ultimate drama queen.) The seemingly going-nowhere zombie-like trance leads into his first solo, a seguiriya -- at least I think this is what followed next. Unfortunately the program was shoddily put together, listing only cast members and production credits, but without a semblance of story-line or description of the choreography or score. I was too busy spectating and not note-taking, since the pace of the show demands constant attention, and the sparing use of scenery engages your mental imagery completely in order to envisage the necessary symbolic elements usually associated with fancier, more theatrical productions. Personally, I just wanted to know what the hell was going on, and when Lola Greco was going to dance. So, I tried to keep up.
Antonio Canales, Lola Greco and Diego Llori in "Carmen, Carmela." Luis Malibran photo courtesy Macande and copyright Luis Malibran.

The blood-red curtain backdrop forms a pulsing, beating jewel box, behind which are the musicians. Occasionally the singers, Herminia Borjas and Jose Valencia, come out to narrate a piece using traditional cante, in place of operatic recitatives. In one number, Herminia sings a "nana" or lullaby to Carmen, and the tenderness in her husky voice is at once heavy-hearted and lamenting. The intermittent use of dialogue is also employed between the singing and dancing, as composer Georges Bizet intended in his opera comique, so as to heighten the drama. The score is an expertly adapted blend of orchestral overtures from a recorded soundtrack (featuring the choir of Seville's famed Maestranza Theater), enhanced by a live ensemble of flamenco musicians combining percussive rhythms with lyrical guitar and vocal arrangements which would have dazzled Bizet himself. (The musical adaptation was by Juan Victor Rodriguez Yague.)

What the mise en scene lacks in props it more than makes up for in the raw sensuality and frisson between Canales and Greco. Casting Lola Greco as Carmen was simply genius on Canales's part. When I asked him if he had her in mind when he came up with the idea of taking on the literary landmark, he answered unequivocally, "There was no one else I could have imagined -- she is the Carmen of all Carmens." At one point he shared with me how Lola (with whom I've worked before, and whose transformative powers I've witnessed first hand) actually cries real tears during one of the brief dialogues they enact, and how it unhinges him each and every time.

Greco is a most convincing Carmen, tormentor and tormented. She and Canales flawlessly take us through a gradual downward spiral of conflict-passion-exasperation-despair and, finally, death. A former prima ballerina with the National Ballet of Spain, from the age of 18 through her untimely departure after a brilliant portrayal of "Medea" in 1998, Greco was prematurely nearing the final demise of her career, to put it mildly. Now 40, an age when many dancers either become choreographers or slip into limelight-bereft oblivion, Greco had by some accounts slipped into a spiritual and emotional purgatory, with rumors circulating of her languishing in physical dissipation -- all of which resulted in her appearing less and less in public, leaving an immense void in all of us who were lucky enough to see her perform when she was at her peak. When I heard she had joined Antonio el Pipa's company in 2004, I knew things did not bode well.

Fast forward to a wake-up intervention call from Canales and a three-month rigorous physical training program coupled with an abstemious nutritional regimen and La Lola has re-emerged sinewy and brutal, a BRICK -- cue the Commodores -- HOUSE, mighty-mighty, a potent onslaught of precision and strength, with adductors that can crack a walnut and a perfect standing split. Effortlessly showing off her considerable classical Spanish dance background, Greco interprets a spirited folk number involving a series of saltarello-type leaps, Goyesca-like, with masterful castanet accompaniment, both of which require separate and intensive years of training. She also performs a flowing tango number with Canales in which they practically become molten, simultaneously showcasing their fiery flamenco footwork within the grace of an adagio pas de deux. Canales originally choreographed the pieces to Bizet's actual score, so many of the dances are not concrete flamenco palos or 'styles' as such but rather, creations and visions which meld in perfect harmony and bring an ambitious, symbiotic freshness to an otherwise dangerously overworked masterpiece. A risque costume change in which Greco strips down to black silk tap shorts and camisole also adds a revealing new eroticism to the role of the cigarette girl, the manipulative man-eater, coy and coquette, and unapologetically whore-like in her brandishing of her bodacious bod.

Greco and Canales are joined by the third cast member and ex-National Ballet veteran Diego Llori, who plays the toreador Escamillo, vying for Carmen's love. Canales graciously lets him take center stage with one of the most difficult and expressive of all flamenco dances, the farruca. Llori interprets it with elegance and poise, albeit rigidly, and without the same vitality and force that his co-stars exude, but then again, those are big footsteps to follow in. Still, he looks the part and does some pretty fancy cape twirling, to boot. When the trio finally emerge together, the tension builds as Greco furiously stomps her way, in a bulerias frenzy, between the two rivals, holding them off while setting them up for their, as well as her own, ultimate self-destruction.

It's not important that in the performance I saw Carmen didn't actually get to die in the end. Instead, she cracked a rib as she threw herself on a table during one scene, and had to be whisked off in an ambulance just before the critical denouement, leaving a spontaneous and inventive Canales to improvise and do the only thing he could have done: commit suicide! Lack of victim notwithstanding, it was a brilliant and noble death. With Carmen's red dress in hand, Don Jose knelt on stage, inserted the pistol in his mouth and "BANG" -- BLACKOUT. (Canales was hilarious when he described to me later what went through his head when he saw Lola being taken away in an ambulance: "Oh my God, what do I do now? I'll kill myself!" It was so typically Canales to take it with aplomb.)

"The classics teach us how to live," Canales says. With "Carmen, Carmela" he has once again proven that he reigns supreme in the world of flamenco dance theater. That same world is beholden to him for returning one of the last remaining legends of dance, Lola Greco, to her rightful place onstage.

I know this is supposed to be a dance review, and admittedly I'm pretty short on dance and long on view. But I feel privileged to be able to share my experiences with the DI's faithful and educated readers in the hopes that you will run, not walk, to the nearest theater where this show is playing next. Upcoming dates in Spain include April 23-24 in Castellon, April 29-30 in Albacete, May 22 in Torrijos, and May 28 in Rivas Vaciamadrid. "Carmen, Carmela" also plays Mexico May 1-21.

Lourdes Gonzalez is a Miami-based tour production coordinator and road manager who has worked and travelled with internationally acclaimed flamenco artists and dance companies since 1996, including Joaquin Cortes, Antonio Canales, the National Ballet of Spain, Paco de Lucia and, most recently, Sara Baras.

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