Sitting in an interview room at the Bunkamura cultural complex in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, María Pagés leans forward, smiles and tells me: “Flamenco is my language. It was always around me in the cafes and bars, and on the driver’s radio if you got a taxi. All the girls dressed up in pretty flamenco dresses for the local festivals. As I am Spanish I speak Spanish; and I dance flamenco because I was born in Seville.”
The 49-year-old doesn’t just “speak” flamenco, she pretty well rules it. Pagés has been called the “Queen of Flamenco,” and watching her perform it’s easy to understand why. Pagés spoke to The Japan Times while on a press tour here in January for her latest work, “Utopia,” which will tour Tokyo, Iwate and Hyogo prefectures from this weekend.
The show should be well-received, because, according to the Japan Flamenco Association, there are around 650 flamenco academies across the country. Perhaps the dance is a language that the Japanese have no trouble understanding.
Recognized early on as an outstanding talent, at 15 Pagés joined the Madrid-based Antonio Gades Company — the world’s leading Spanish-dance troupe. She quickly distinguished herself through many leading roles and guested at other top companies, including the Mario Maya Company and the Rafael Aguilar Ballet.
In 1990, while still only 27, she founded her own María Pagés Company, where — as its artistic director, leading dancer and choreographer — she has always been keen to collaborate with dancers from other fields. In 1995, for instance, she performed with Ireland’s well-known Riverdance troupe; while in 2011 in London she worked with Belgium’s Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to create “Dunas,” a contemporary dance program acclaimed for showcasing the possibilities of modern flamenco.
Despite her remarkable career, Pagés says she doesn’t plan out her future very closely, but she will only embark on a collaboration if she knows her partner well.
“With Larbi it took a few years to decide to work together as we needed time to get to know each other,” she explains. “Then one day, we both decided to do the collaboration — it was like a moment when people decide to get married, and it really is like choosing a marriage partner. I need to get a nice feeling with someone in an equal relationship; I don’t want to work with anyone if it involves making them do things my way. It’s also important that the decision to collaborate is made by both artists, not by a promoter or anyone else.”
“Utopia” is one of Pagés’ marriages, but it is a collaboration of a different sort. The piece owes its inspiration to Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died in December at the age of 104. Pagés has been touring it around the world since October 2011, when she premiered the work at the Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Center in Avilés, Spain.
Since then, it has won critical praise and the Audience Award at flamenco’s major Festival de Jerez last year.
Pagés says that she’d known about Niemeyer’s “great works” for years.
“One day I found myself with free time in Madrid,” she recalls. “It suddenly started to rain very hard and I rushed into a doorway to take shelter.
“There, I saw a poster announcing the last day of a Niemeyer exhibition, so I asked the security guard if I could go in and he said, ‘Quick, quick, we will soon close.’ ”
While inside the exhibition, Pagés remembers becoming taken by Niemeyer’s quotes. One in particular that she recalls was, “Architecture is my work, and I’ve spent my whole life at a drawing board, but life is more important than architecture. What matters is to improve human beings.”
“That made tears run down my face,” she says. “And two months later I was in his studio with him in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro.”
Pagés visited the architect — who is as renowned for his cultural critiques as he is for his curvaceous buildings — twice, in March 2010 and January 2011.
“At first, I was very nervous because I’d never met anyone more than 100 years old before,” she says. “However, he seemed to be a totally free person and he talked a lot about the universe and his interest in the origin of this planet — and amazingly he was still taking lessons from an astronomer every Tuesday. But of course, he also talked a lot about football (laughs).”
Explaining that she created “Utopia” in response to current social situations and to explore in particular “what people are doing wrong,” Pagés acknowledges the “huge inspiration” the piece owes to Niemeyer, pointing out that it features some of his texts.
“But I also put all my life experience and essence into the work,” she adds. “So I chose my favorite poems and other writings, including some excerpts from ‘Don Quixote’ and lines by the Chilean Nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, the French poet Charles Baudelaire and the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado.”
“Utopia” also features sets conceived by Niemeyer collaborator Jair Varela and live music by flamenco composer Rubén Lebaniegos. Pagés is keen to express, however, the societal concerns she’s weaved into the piece and how it portrays the suffering of humanity in general.
Spain was hit particularly hard by the global financial crisis of 2008 and it continues to be one of the European countries that is most affected by the ongoing slump.
“The current economic crises directly affect our everyday lives,” she says. “But though we need money to live, I’m not just talking about financial circumstances. My concern is chiefly about deeper levels of the human condition nowadays — people’s problems about their sense of worth and their inner awareness of what’s happening.”
Identifying the work’s themes as being “ourselves, our egoism, our human solidarity and our dialogue,” she continues, “Nowadays, we only think about our own situation, and we share things together less — always talking about ‘me, me, more, more, more.’ So I thought that was the real problem and it was time to act. That is my message in ‘Utopia.’
“Even though history proves we have never had a perfect world, I believe that at least we can have better world. Utopia isn’t a dream place — because it’s already here. But we need to work to realize it.”
Pagés voices her hopes in a way that immediately brings to mind one fabled time she danced to John Lennon’s “Imagine” in New York in 2007. Reminded of this, she says: “Like he sang, I believe in that idea of sharing all the world with others for the good of all — and if we imagine that then we can be better every day.”
These are grand ideals that Pagés puts forward in her explanation of “Utopia,” but that’s not surprising when you realize how dedicated she is to flamenco as an art form. In 2010, UNESCO designated the dance as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and when I mention this, Pagés sweeps back her long black hair and continues to extoll the essence of what makes it special.
“Flamenco is living, it’s not showpieces in a museum,” she says. “Life is not always the same, we are in permanent transformation, so you won’t be the same person now as you were a year ago. Flamenco is like that, it is a true reflection of human life — it is a popular art, and that’s what makes it such a rich art form.”
Nonetheless, Pagés says she was concerned whether “Utopia” would be the right message for Japanese audiences. She really feels the desire to get involved with the healing of people affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and, when she was here in January, she visited Fukushima. She also mentions studying the poetry of Kenji Miyazawa, so perhaps there could be a Japanese “Utopia” in the future for this queen to reign over.
María Pagés performs “Utopia” at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on May 18 and 19 (6 p.m./3 p.m. start; ¥7,000-12,600;  3477-3244); at Sakura Hall in Kitakami, Iwate Pref., on May 22 (7 p.m.; ¥3,500-7,600;  61-3300); and at Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Pref., on May 25 (2 p.m.; ¥5,000-11,000;  68-0223). For more information, visit www.bunkamura.co.jp or www.mariapages.com.