When it comes to telling a story through dance, most people think of ballet or musical theater. But Antigona, presented by troupe Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca, offered something far more unique: a story told through the art of flamenco. This performance, which ran October 23-25 as part of the UW World Series, made many unexpected connections between seriousness and humor, high and low art, and across varied cultures to tell the story of Sophocles’ ancient Greek heroine, Antigone. The piece was directed by Artistic Director/Producer of Noche Flamenca, Martín Santangelo and choreographed by star dancer, Soledad Barrio. Presented in 15 distinct scenes, the collaborators wove together vignettes of pure, concert-style dance and live music, as well as monologues and skits. At the end of the evening, one might have said the performance was a play, or a folk-dance epic like Riverdance (but with a Gipsy Kings soundtrack). Either assertion would be right.
When the curtain went up, a high priest offered a prayer to Zeus to break the curse of the Labdacus family, which condemns Oedipus to kill his father and marry his mother. The priest stood more than 15 feet tall on a platform, draped in fabric that concealed all but his face, and fell all the way to the floor. The fabric parted in the middle as the dancers, who wore masks with faces like frowning skeletons (designed by visual artist Mary Frank), crawled from the depths below.
The full story of the woman, Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, is complex. The most important thing to know is that Antigone (portrayed by Barrio) defies the wishes of her uncle, the king, to give her dead brother, a traitor of the state, a proper burial. The story ends in disaster: Antigone takes her own life. In Antigona, we saw the title character for the first time as she danced to mourn for her dead family. The blind seer Tiersias (singer José Jiménez), followed behind her, calling out in a voice of beautiful sorrow.
The other characters of the story were portrayed by a dozen or so male and female dancers who shared the stage with guitarists; after all, flamenco is not simply dance. Known as one of the most authentic troupes of its kind in the world, one could feel the energy and the spirit of this Andalusian tradition; members of the audience cried out “Olé!” as words of encouragement during the show.
Two of the dancers used different movement styles, flamenco and hip-hop, to portray the fight between brothers Polyneices (Salvador Rivilla) who stomped and swaggered, and Eteocles (David Thomas) who popped, locked, and swerved. These two ferocious movers looked straight out of So You Think You Can Dance, and the audience ate it up.
To further aid the storytelling, master of ceremonies (singer Emilio Florido) narrated in Spanish, and a screen onstage provided English subtitles. The text was helpful, but at times, spoke unnecessarily where the art form itself could have communicated clearly on its own. The main problem with the titles and some of the theatrical elements, is that they often seemed inelegant bridges between the traditional and the modern. Following intense, striking flamenco dancing, moments such as the queen’s “refuge party” with glittery words projected on-screen, the kazoo inauguration of Creon, or the monologue by Antigone’s “bilingual sister” Ismene (dancer Marina Elana), delivered with the pizazz and the sass of a Broadway performer, felt bizarre in the context of the rest of the performance, even though they were fun and engaging. Humor can be useful, especially when the medium has the potential for melodrama like flamenco. But here, the timing felt off, making it tawdry instead of comedic. Additionally, some performers were more suited to the speaking parts than others. At one point, Barrio exclaimed out loud in English, “I think both of my brothers are honorable.” Hearing her less assured voice almost took some of her mystery, and thus, her power, away.
Regardless, Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times said of Barrio, “I can think of no current ballet star in the world as marvelous as she.” And indeed, beyond steps and choreography, Barrio moved like a woman who has truly lived life—both its joy and its pain. Her family survived the desperate hunger and civil war of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, and that experience, as well plenty of grit and tenacity, are obviously in her blood. Barrio brought all her humanity to Antigone.
She found most potency in silence and stillness—her jaw set, her expression stern. When she moved with swirling port de bras and strode, low to the ground and bent in plié, it had the effect of an oncoming storm. At a moment’s notice, she could transform from a dark, rolling cloud to lighting in a flurry of staccato rhythm, exposed calves flashing beneath her long skirt. While her footwork commanded attention, it was the waiting with baited breath to see what she would do next that was most thrilling. By the end of the night, it was clear that the Antigona as a production could have used stronger creative direction, and perhaps, more editing. However, the opportunity to watch Barrio in action made the trip to Meany Hall worthwhile.
More information about Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca can be found on their website. Information about the UW World Series Program can be found here.