What happens when a Québécois play is transposed into the language of flamenco? For Laura Lynne McGee, the result is “Azafran Or Rouge”. The latest show by Montréal’s Ballet Flamenco Arte de España, “Azafran Or Rouge” recently played the long and narrow Club Soda nightclub, a renconverted old movie house with floor and balcony seating, that these days mainly books music concerts. Choreographed by company member and co-founder McGee, “Azafran Or Rouge” takes its inspiration from Michel Tremblay’s play Les Belles-soeurs. When that milestone work opened in Montréal almost forty years ago, it was a chance for Québécois audiences to hear a story in their own vernacular, joual.
Les Belles-soeurs — the “sisters-in-law” — is the tale of Germaine Lauzon, a working-class woman who wins a million pinky stamps. In the 1960s, people could collect the stamps and trade them in for consumer goods. Lauzon dreams of what she could buy. Friends and family help paste them into books, but some of the women steal the stamps. Tremblay’s play has been performed in eight different languages – including a Scottish brogue (Tremblay was once dubbed “the greatest Scottish playwright Scotland never had”). Early in the 1990s, the divine Dora Wasserman presented the play at the Yiddish Theatre in Montréal. But until now it has never inspired a dance piece.
The unlikely link between trading stamps and flamenco might make many doubt the promise of such a project. After all, it was hard to imagine how McGee would integrate the kitchen-sink reality of Tremblay’s world with the sensual, percussive, colourful, insistent, and overall exhilarating rhythms that one associates with flamenco dance. That McGee would be able to transpose a culturally significant play into another genre and not dilute the result is equally audacious, but cultural barriers are being bridged with this new production.
McGee says she took a cue from a friend who was writing a thesis on the work of Garcia Lorca (one of Spain’s premier playwrights) and Tremblay. The dictatorship of Franco’s Spain and Québec’s repressive Duplessis era are easily linked in their isolationist policies. In Spain, there are quite a few shows bringing together Lorca and flamenco.That got McGee thinking about Tremblay and flamenco.
You need not have read Tremblay’s play to understand McGee’s take. Instead of pinky stamps, her characters are brought together by a harvest of crocuses: they pick the cherished saffron out of the flower (the title references the golden-orange colour of the flower’s stigma). McGee has cast her dancers as Roma, a group that she sees as culturally bound in the same way she sees the Québécoise women in Tremblay’s play harnessed by religion.
McGee’s structure moves away from a traditional flamenco, and a particular etiquette, towards a more fluid theatrical presentation that accommodates character development, (and reflects her own background and training in theatre). It also bears homage to the heroic personal solo.
The Germaine Lauzon-type character, now named Rocio (danced by Marie Parisella) is central. With the cock of her head, Parisella says she’s the boss, proud and strong. But her character could use even more gusto (she blanches next to some of the other characters). When the bounty of the harvest arrives, so do her friends, each supposedly joining Rocio in picking the world’s most precious and expensive spice. Each of the cast members has a solo, and the choreography exploits the personalities of the performers and the strengths of their performance. Katherine Oliveri was a standout as the boisterous sister, captivating in her brazenness and revealing some essential human truths about vanity. Lina Moros played the sexually charged friend who, with the arch of her neck, sideways furling and unfurling of the folds of her flowing dress and beautiful fanning of her back, made the audience swoon. These dancers listen to the singers and take us somewhere with their dancing. There’s a playful tension and a progression of rivalry between “Azafran’s” nine dancers, and the complement of singers and musicians works as a fine backdrop. The performers infuse the show with the emotional diversity of flamenco’s temperaments.
A large partisan crowd loved the little isolations of the pelvis; the phrases of rhythmic footwork; the women’s articulated spiralling shapes with their fingers, arms and upper torsos; the flare of the dramatic skirts and the commanding poses. Flamenco gets tacky if it gets too big. It’s also easy to make it commercial. It’s tricky trying to serve up all the ingredients and the flavour of flamenco, to be true to the art form, and not become just a flash act. However, the work is undone by McGee’s democratic approach.
The choreographer measures the time she allocates her musicians and dancers, so that the dance remains the expression of song, rhythm and guitar instrumentation and, in this case, percussion. McGee unfortunately is unable to harness the energy and serves up too many elements. She highlights her technically robust dancers, but the over-abundance of solos dilutes the overall strength of some of the performances that are so filled with humanity. In fact, more splashy ensemble dancing would have added to the show, not because I prefer cheesy flamenco, but because it would have broken up what essentially became an evening of dutiful solos.
Joël Beaupré’s lighting gives the work an atmosphere of intimacy: the stage is flushed with red and amber lighting which sculpts the stage, giving it texture and depth. However the sound, by Michel Coulombe, was the one of the show’s major disappointments. Microphones set at the front of the stage didn’t effectively capture the play of the feet on the wood floor, so what we heard was a clunky mess. There was no fullness to the sound of the violin: Kristin Molnár might as well have been playing a tin can. Equally, because of the way they were mic-ed, José-Luis Pérez tended to overwhelm fellow singer Marie-Hélène Raby. Both had beautiful voices able to deliver powerful and melodic vocals, but the lack of modulation between the two dispelled the magic.
For members of the “Azafran” audience, there was another challenge. With an intermission over half an hour long, even the receptive got impatient, regardless of the available licensed bar (after all, it was a club setting). On opening night, exasperation set in, and many people seemed to leave the theatre disgruntled. Flamenco is a dance that can be very passionate. It has a way to get into your soul. In the end, “Azafran” is enigmatic: it’s dotted with fine observations but, despite the charm of its novelty, just doesn’t pull far enough.
“Azafran Or Rouge” by Ballet Flamenco Arte de España will be presented on January 13th, 2007 at Centre culturel, Beloeil and on March 22nd, 2007 at Théâtre Despréz, Gatineau.