In Seville, the spiritual home of flamenco in the Andalusia region of southern Spain, the cigarette factory where the gypsy girl Carmen worked in Prosper Merimee’s eponymous 1845 novella is still standing.
Though the building is now part of a university law school, fans of the book and Georges Bizet’s opera of the same name that it inspired still flock to see where the sultry temptress seduced and besotted the naive cop Don Jose so her smuggler friends could bring contraband into the city unchallenged.
However, Seville-born dancer and choreographer Maria Pages — who brings her latest work, “Yo, Carmen,” to Tokyo this month — takes issue with that fictional narrative.
“Let me say this,” the undisputed queen of modern flamenco declared in our recent interview, “Carmen is a character who appears in a French novel, based on a symbol of male fantasies. If you think that’s the spirit and temperament of Seville or flamenco or Spanish women, then you’re greatly mistaken.”
As well, 51-year-old Pages — who returns here two years after her powerful and visionary show “Utopia” took Tokyo by storm — was at pains to explain, “My aunt and my cousin are both named Carmen, and I have many friends named Carmen. For me, Carmen isn’t a femme fatale. She’s an ordinary woman.
“In other words, you and I are also Carmen — hence ‘Yo, Carmen’ (‘I, Carmen’). That’s why I felt I had a responsibility to remove myself from the male gaze and exhibit the many emotions, desires, anxieties and contradictions that we women ourselves possess — and so reclaim the true voice of women.”
So, while Pages and six female dancers do flash their fans in the prologue, they go on to read poems, sweep with brooms, amuse themselves with chit-chat and compare their handbags while shopping — all the while expressing truly open emotions in their group and solo dances.
The poetry scene is particularly effective — even though it’s recorded voices, not the dancers’, that audiences hear reading aloud works by female writers from around the world in their original languages, including Arabic, French, English, Persian and Japanese.
“Mothers teach their language to their children, which is why it is called the ‘mother tongue,’ but I feel that this fact is not really valued properly,” Pages pointed out astutely.
“Even though the wisdom of humanity, including history, science, religion and so on is written in books, women were not even offered the opportunity to read for several centuries. By getting a better education and expanding our intelligence, we can expand the choices available to us, and achieve freedom.
“That’s why I included the poetry reading: To symbolize the opportunities for women to gain knowledge and improve themselves.”
In the final scene, Pages dresses up in front of a mirror and confronts her reflection before shedding her fancy clothes and performing a violent solo as if gouging out her own soul. But, as she said, that is a positive message “to not be tempted by the gaze and affectations of others, and instead look hard at your true self.”
So, be prepared to meet a remarkable new Carmen bearing an uplifting message — especially for women.
“Yo, Carmen” runs April 24 to 26 at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya, Tokyo. For details, call 03-3477-9999 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp/orchard/lineup/15_maria. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.
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