The horror that descended on our city curtailed an annual dance pleasure: the prestigious free “Evening Stars” series at the World Trade Center Plaza. But those seeking respite from trauma could find it at City Center, where La Cuadra de Sevilla opened Salvador Távora’s Carmen last Wednesday as scheduled, offering its first performance free as a gift to the city.
Távora’s most brilliant concept for this “Andalusian opera,” which runs through Sunday, is to have Carmen (Lalo Tejada) betray Don José with a picador. Jaime de la Puerta rides triumphantly in on a magnificent white stallion (Tiburón). Forget the fact that no picador would have such a mount; the sight of the horse dancing to a tape of Bizet’s bombastic “Toreador” while Carmen weaves seductively around him raises the emotional temperature in the house several notches.
Távora, a native of Seville, is committed to expressing the gritty realities of Andalusian society, with its gypsy culture. His Carmen is a fiery revolutionary, not the wanton heroine of Prosper Mérrimee’s tale and Bizet’s opera. Most of the music is performed by guitarists Manuel Berraquero and Miguel Aragón, three superb flamenco singers (Ana Penã, Anabel Rosado, and Kina Mendez), and a 24-man onstage band of drummers and more buglers than I’ve ever heard at one time. The ensemble’s shrill, raucous sound lurches the story along like a Holy Week street procession. The singers, playing Carmen’s colleagues at the cigar factory, exhort and wail, scarring silence. Toward the end, Penã hovers over a knife stabbed into the floor, the hoarse edge to her voice already opening wounds. As Carmen awaits her fatal confrontation with José, Rosado’s ringing tone becomes muffled and nasal, quivering with the perpetual dark passion of the cante jondo.
Yet Távora’s approach is austere and heavily symbolic. The knife dropped by José (Marco Vargas) during the first of several sensational solos becomes a focus for all; bad things are going to happen—they know it. Three gypsy-hating soldiers make a ceremonious display of ominous footwork that leads to the beating of Carmen. Despite imaginative directorial decisions, connections are often cloudy. José kills Carmen’s rapist, a fellow soldier (José Galán), by throwing a white cloth over his unprotesting head; as José’s heelwork punishes the ground, bloodstains bloom on the cloth. For the sake of this startling effect, we have to put up with a villain standing like a Halloween ghost.
For a revolutionary, Carmen spends a disappointing amount of time on the ground reaching out anguished hands, inciting love, beseeching tormentors, or accusing someone. Távora often leaves the beautiful and accomplished Tejada passionately vamping rather than dancing or performing a telling act (she does smack José’s epaulet to show her revived hatred for the military). Vargas is the dancing star of the show, his acting strong and ardent, and his heelwork crystal clear and rhythmically rich.
The seventh annual “dancenowfest,” truncated last week, was the most ambitious yet. At opening night’s second show, many of the young choreographers—all highly trained dancers—explore the drama of awkwardness. Romy Reading, functioning as a wacky hostess, stumbles about the Joyce Soho and the street outside it in very high heels, nervously pulling down her minuscule striped dress. In her Wet Blue, Clare Byrne weaves drunkenly with an empty bottle, occasionally knocking off a bit of dancing. Even the title of Faye Driscoll’s witty W-W-Walk stutters, and Driscoll, when the lights come up, looks appalled to be there. Each time she exits with an embarrassed wave, she returns with one more woman in tow. As they dance their edgy way to one corner, somebody’s always out of step, or doing things apologetically her own way. At the end, they hold hands and giggle, each revealing a blacked-out tooth. In Welcome to Marlboro Country, tall Magdalena Jarkowiec, mouth twitching with concentration, smacks her feet around to “Frog Went a Courtin’ ” like a gawky country girl, sporty gear showing beneath her ruffles.
A loopy lecture on fruit crops up in Karinne Keithley’s wonderful On the Apricot, and she echoes its words with doubtful if stolid gestures amid her fluidly clunky moves. Luis Alberto Tentindo, a compelling dancer, performs his Primage with tentative softness, rearranging his lean body as if rehearsing brain surgery. It’s disappointing when music joins him, so gripping are his own rhythms. In Nicole Berger’s Deferred Discourse, fugitive, tense, and incomplete connections between four women tug against Bach’s fluent, centered music.
The program included an attractive fragment of Erica Essner’s Kandinsky for six women and a duet from Zvi Gotheiner’s Interiors in which Todd Allen and Ying-Ying Shiau make endless tangles flow like melting butter.
Clarinda Mac Low is a choreographer, but choreography is not what she does in The Division of Memory, at P.S. 122 through September 23. The solo theater piece, created with Voice contributor James Hannaham, draws on her other career as an HIV researcher. Hannaham plays the African American biologist Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941), who during the ’20s came up with then radical theories of cellular development.
Hannaham is hemmed in by paraphernalia (designed by David Morris), just as inherited alcoholism and America’s traditions of racism impede his career. Like the all-white laundry he’s hung to dry, plastic tubes festoon the room, suspended over beakers that crowd two tables, running into sinks of what looks like milk. Michael Kang’s video projections spill onto monitors, a screen, sinks, and a wall—capturing Hannaham’s multiple personas (one is a bitter drunk who tells coarse jokes), as well as his relations with various women, who are seen only on video (Tory Vazquez plays them all), and a plethora of fascinating images from America’s shameful racial history.
Just is patronized by most professors and colleagues; his brilliance, one says, must come from a white ancestor. “Death is the collapse of a biological system,” Hannaham remarks. Just’s own system seems to have been in collapse almost from the start. He talks almost constantly, as he struggles through his Dartmouth studies and jobs at Wood’s Hole and Howard University, through his flight from Europe with a half-Jewish wife, to his death from cancer. Scientific ideas fly through the air, brought down abruptly (in one powerful moment, Hannaham sits before a mirror and rubs white makeup onto his face).
A lot of the stuff onstage isn’t used enough to make it integral (when Hannaham finally plunges his head into a sink, you expect him to arise altered, and when he emerges unchanged you wonder what the action means). At some point the dramatic impetus falters, but the ideas are rich and Hannaham’s performance tremendous.