In the holiday season of July and August, many Londoners fly off in search of shores that are brighter, livelier and frankly sexier than those of Great Britain. But for those of us who stayed put, there were several programs that flew in some bright, lively and often sexy dancing from far-off places: Mexico, Brazil and Cuba.
Ballet Folklórico de México brought a cornucopia of costumes in eye-watering hues of lime, tangerine and fuchsia that made London feel very drab. Part cultural ambassador, part tourist postcard, part stage attraction, Ballet Folklórico draws on traditional Mexican dances in striking and theatrically savvy set-pieces, its dancers combining strict discipline with sunny dispositions.
For sheer energy, you couldn’t beat Baila Brazil by Balé de Rua, a freewheeling mix of samba with hip-hop, capoeira with MTV, favela funk with acrobatics. What it lacks in polish and focus it makes up for with easy conviviality and infectious rhythms that had the audience partying at the end.
Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta, long resident in London, revived his show Cubanía, modern dance pieces featuring dancers or choreographers from Cuba, topped off with his own Tocororo Suite, a tale of a ballet boy (Acosta) who discovers his salsa-sass and so wins the love of feisty chica Verónica Corveas and the respect of cock-of-the-walk Alexander Varona. Again, lots of party spirit, not too much depth.
Oddly, the hottest Latin ticket in town was a home-grown work. Untethered by any real-life location or cultural obligation, Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man (2000) is set in a fictional Italian-American township into which he pours the operatic passions of Bizet’s Hispanic fantasy Carmen and the lurid melodrama of Hollywood film noir — especially The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), as well Visconti’s 1943 Italian version, Ossessione — and stews them in a potboiler atmosphere worthy of Tennessee Williams. It’s all very un-British.
The piece opens with the signs all in place — literally. A billboard displays the name of the town — Harmony (“Population: 375”) — in big bold type. Next to a greasy café called Dino’s Diner, a placard is scrawled with an ad for a garage workhand: “MAN WANTED”. In strolls hunky drifter Luca (Marcelo Gomes in the performance I saw, guesting from American Ballet Theatre), who takes the job at Dino’s, becomes the MAN WANTED by both Dino’s sexually frustrated wife, Lana, and the sexually repressed (and oppressed) hired hand, Angelo — thus seeding discord into Harmony.
As often with Bourne, The Car Man is character-led and plot-driven, and if the dancing sometimes lacks choreographic inventiveness, it is dramatically apt and theatrically astute. Indeed, it is often the fine details that give the blocky choreography its emotive force: the caught glances, the impulses and hesitations, the angle of a head, the pressure of a caress.
We sense the scene not as sex between individuals, but as Eros itself unbound
Bourne handles the sex scenes well. A sultry night, the dancers flopping with torpor and pulling on each other’s cigarettes, seems almost to sweat desire. Luca and Gina’s consummation is brilliantly portrayed, the couple half-hidden in their room while the chorus of dancers take over the stage, fornicating in various combinations of gender and number. We sense the scene not as sex between individuals, but as Eros itself unbound.
The story turns to jealousy, deception, murder and revenge, with Angelo abused in prison after being framed for Dino’s death, and Luca and Gina living the high life until the whole hair-trigger setup finally explodes, leaving another corpse and a smoking gun. It’s heady stuff, and could have been hammy, but Bourne does not moralize, and the performers bring considerable nuance to their characters. Gomes plays Luca as someone out of his depth; Zizi Strallen is a headstrong Gina, driven by desires she cannot control; and Dominic North is an especially affecting Angelo, an innocent soul first bullied, then embittered.
an innocent soul first bullied, then embittered
One deliciously wicked scene deserves special mention: using a favoured show-within-a-show device, Bourne has a troupe of po-faced, black-leotarded mime artists act out a triangular story of love and murder in arch, arty style — a parody of the framing story that both underscores the drama and provides comic relief from it.
Credit, too, to the creative team. Lez Brotherston’s multi-level set is effective and highly adaptable, and Terry Davies’ skilful adaptation of the Carmen score allows the music to follow the action like a film score. Indeed, the whole production sits in some unclassifiable, populist space between dance, theatre, opera, musical and film — which is maybe why critics (and indeed theatres) find it hard to place, and why audiences love it.
Cruelly, real tragedy curtailed the steamy fantasy of The Car Man this summer. Hours before the last performance, dancer Jonathan Ollivier, due to perform as Luca, was knocked from his motorbike and killed following a collision with a man in a car, who was arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving. The final performance was cancelled; the season was over too soon.