If someone thanks you in Spanish, the usual response is “de nada” (“it’s nothing”) so one assumes a certain counter-intuitive aspiration behind Carlos Pons Guerra’s naming of his company. It’s a gamble that is paying off since each succeeding work has built a reputation that is now quite something.
Like so many successful director/choreographers specialising in dance theatre (think Matthew Bourne, Mark Bruce, Anabelle Lopez Ochoa and Arthur Pita as a quartet of examples), Pons Guerra is establishing a popular profile by developing his own distinctive approach. His work is ultra-stylish, sensorial, sensual and layered with a rich patina comprising vintage Hispanic music, often of Latin American origin, and striking designs to evoke settings that are invariably historic but sit somewhere between reality and fantasy. Here, in Pons Guerra’s first two-act work – he has made another – Mariposa – that has yet to tour – he begins with 30 minutes in a Latin American ‘sex worker’s parlour’; before progressing, for another half-hour, into a circus sideshow in the desert.
The recorded music evokes an impression of mid-20th Century Latin nightclubs with classic songs from Cuba’s “King of Mambo”, Pérez Prado; Castilian, Sarah Montiel – one of Spain’s greatest actresses; and Costa Rican, Chavela Vargas, an emotive ranchera singer; stirred with a significant slice of Mexican mariachi. Some numbers arrived from left field with Hispanic versions of familiar songs from other genres, such as Prado’s exotic version of I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady and the ubiquitous Unchained Melody, recorded in an unusual interpretation by the late Cuban siren, La Lupe. I could have closed my eyes and just listened to this stunning, vintage Latin American playlist and come away, happy. My only quibble being the absence – in this compilation – of the uniquely descriptive voice of Lola Beltrán, the most acclaimed ranchera singer of them all: her Huapango Torero would have been a good thematic fit with the bullfighting allegory!
Alongside the mariachi and ranchera, the dominant musical theme was the pasodoble, emphasised upfront by two of the most famous pasodoble songs: Paquito el Chocolatero (a song that inspired its own version of the dance) and El gato montés (The wild cat). In so many respects, one can view Pons Guerra’s latest work through the lens of a deconstructed pasodoble.
The dance interprets the structure of a bullfight with the man traditionally portraying the matador and the woman, the bull (although in modern-day competitive dancesport, she is generally the cape). Here, the Bull (Toro) follows pasodoble tradition through being a woman (a striking performance by Marivi Da Silva) and, while she is threatened by the abusive challenges of four matadors, her principal partner – the Beauty – is another woman (Emma Walker). Throughout the work, Da Silva maintains that unique upper body shaping, particular to the pasodoble, turning to the left and to the right whilst holding the same distinctive posture. The elegance of her hand, arm and wrist movements was especially stylish. Walker gave a striking account of vulnerability and her main duet with Da Silva sizzled with sensual and erotic heat.
Pons Guerra’s choreography and direction filled this small studio stage with arresting imagery in realising his twilight world between reality and fantasy; between now and an unspecified past. Ryan Dawson Laight’s sets simply and effectively create a sense of place with ambiguous references to nightclub, theatre, fairy tale and circus; and with his costumes – leather harnesses, straps, headdresses and flowing skirts – come ideas of bondage and sinister suggestions of repression and abuse.
As well as the pasodoble, the other allusion is, of course, to Beauty and the Beast but, here, again, both individuals are women, although the real “Beast” is represented in the collective brutality of the men, who might be fascists, violent homophobes or #MeToo abusers. In any event, Pons Guerra gives powerful messages as food for thought, conveyed in fluid, descriptive movement and strong characterisation. Unlike the fairy tale, but like the real-life stories that surround us every day, Pons Guerra’s allegory does not have that happy ending of salvation arriving just before the enchanted rose petal falls.
This is a work that is sinister, in mood, and vivid, in style. It works on many levels of ingenious allusion, contains a plethora of fascinating references; excellent performances; and a blissful musical journey. Having finished its current tour, in Derby, on the day following this show, I hope this Beauty and the Bull will come out to play again.