Andalusia, says Spanish theater artist Salvador Távora, is “where Europe ends and Africa commences.” It’s the site of the Rock of Gibraltar, and home to gypsies since the 15th century. Cádiz, the heart of Andalusia, is “the southernmost city in Europe. For 3500 years it’s been a quilt of different cultures: Tartars, Arabs, Greeks, Phoenicians. From there comes the richness of the sonorous Andalusian culture—the vocal influences of Jews, Moors. Flamenco is a synthesis of all of this.”
Távora’s a native of Seville, just north of Cádiz; his troupe, La Cuadra de Sevilla, is named after a place in his neighborhood where underground artists would gather to share ideas and perform. He brings his 1996 version of Carmen, based on stories his great-grandmother told him in Seville, to City Center September 12 for a two-week run.
His ancestor was named for the gypsy woman who inspired novelist Prosper Mérimée; Mérimée’s 1845 character, in turn, became the heroine of Bizet’s 1875 Carmen. Both Mérimée and Bizet were French, though, and Távora says they got the story wrong, both in its details and in its political attitudes and general tone. Távora, a small, sixty-something man with a ponytail, believes he’s the first Andalusian artist to create a Carmen, to try to tell the real story. Speaking through a translator in a Manhattan hotel, gesticulating with his hands, he tries to evoke “an austere, beautiful, rigorous, dignified woman, committed to her way of being and her time.”
A son of the working class who left school at 14 to apprentice as a welder, Távora became passionate about bullfighting and flamenco. When, one summer day more than 40 years ago, both the bullfighter he worked with and the bull died in the ring, he gave up that calling and began exploring the connection between risk and art. Developing an innovative sound that he felt truly represented Andalusian culture, he joined a theater company and later began to make his own pieces. In the past 25 years he’s introduced machines and animals to his proscenium stage, often incorporating the customs and choreography of his people and the drama of the bullfight.
The original Carmen, according to Távora, was a cigarerra, a cigar maker from Triana. She got involved with the Basque soldier Don José Lizzarabengoa, who rescued her from a raid on local gypsies. Their relationship was a scandal: Military men did not mix openly with gypsies. Making things more difficult, Carmen was a progressive and a campaigner for women’s rights—the right to work less than from sunup to sundown, the right to single motherhood, to nurse children in the factory, to smoke.
“All the women who worked in the tobacco factory were part of a collective,” says Távora. “They defended their rights as workers and their freedom as women. The original legend of Carmen is one that had been transmitted orally. Women attained economic independence and the right to chose who they wanted to love.” When Carmen’s lover was imprisoned, she visited him, but eventually she fell in love with a picador; upon his release, the jealous Don José stabbed her with his bayonet.
“She defends her liberty to love,” says Távora of his version of the story. “When he comes out of jail, she doesn’t love him anymore. She dies for her right to be able to love freely. She doesn’t want to die, but she dies satisfied, knowing that she must do it for her freedom. Her death is a consequence of machismo, not of her feminism.”
A picador, says Távora (who used to be one), is a bullfighter on a horse, and that horse is central to his conception of the story. Sometimes Távora performs in the piece as a singer, “as a way to stimulate the rest of the company. You never have the authority from a table. You have to be onstage, and work from that.” The “profound songs” he sings “form a part of every Andalusian’s daily life, part of the social fabric—weddings, birthdays. A way of expressing happiness, pain, and joy.”
His Carmen, first produced in 1996, proceeds in 16 loosely connected scenes. It features six dancers, three singers, two guitarists, and a drum-and-bugle corps of 25 to 30. “The same musicians who played abroad have to do it here—there’s no score. They can’t be swapped. The songs and dances are never the same. They have a different dramatic line in each performance. The dancer or singer has the liberty to get to a certain place. It’s live—every show is different. There’s no conductor. We all belong to the same Andalusian community—that is fundamental. It would not be possible if they were not Andalusian. These are deep veins that we’re trying to manipulate, that can’t be learned. I can teach you how to sing, but I can’t teach you the pain of why I sing.”
Also traveling with the company is Illustrado 13, a white stallion, as well as its rider and an assistant. The heroine’s lover courts her on the horse, and, says Távora, “The horse has an intrinsic rhythm. As a horse it has its own code of movement, not necessarily choreographed. In the dance with Carmen, both the horse and the rider attempt to make love to her.
“For the first time, the horse has a role in the show. It’s not decorative. It’s a role that promotes the plot, that convinces and seduces with its own beauty. The horse, because of its whiteness and the lighting, acquires a certain brilliance, not a ‘special effect’ but a real apparition, spiritual in that it forms a part of the story.”
This Carmen is sung in Spanish. Távora doesn’t think the audience needs to understand the words. There’s no dialogue; the nonverbal elements, what he calls “the physical poetry,” will be enough to transmit emotion. “The eloquence of the stance—it’s a physical language, for and of the senses. The words are important, but not fundamental. It will all be translated in the playbill, the words to the songs. But do you need to translate the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven in order to understand it?” he asks. “It’s the same thing.”
La Cuadra de Sevilla makes its U.S. debut in Salvador Távora’s Carmen at City Center, 131 West 55th Street, September 12 through 23. For tickets and information call 212-581-1212 or visit www.citycenter.org.