When I interviewed Maria Pagés weeks ago, she told me that "it's important for men and women to be equal in this world. For this, men and women came together to make a project. That is the identity of this work. Make a family, work together."
We see this the moment we enter the Gaillard. Most every seat is filled — mothers, fathers, children, grandparents. It is very much a family affair. I stand out as a solo attendee, but I want to be alone. I feel that I need to be alone to connect with Pagés and everything I've built her up to be. After an intimate hour spent the night before in the cozy Woolfe Street Playhouse, I'm wary about the space between myself and the stage. The row behind me is filled with loud-whisperers commenting on the architecture and color scheme of the theater. Groups of people stand slack-jawed looking for seats that ushers can't seem to locate. I can't help but think 'Man, I really wanted this show to myself.'
After a night sleeping on it, I've decided I still feel the same way. I think a smaller venue would have been the answer (and is the only reason this is not getting an A+ grade), for me at least, as to why the evening didn't feel just quite perfect. But, as Pagés told me, it's not supposed to be perfect, and it's certainly not about one person. Carmen is not perfect. She's real, a real, universal representation of the woman.
The first scene finds Pagés and five other female dancers opening and closing fans. This is the only time a male takes the stage (other than the musicians) — he approaches Pagés with a blunt object of some kind, dramatically raising and bringing it down just before it touches her blood red fan. This is, ostensibly, the universal assault of women, be it violent, passive, or simply ignorant. The rest of the show makes it its mission to depict the woman as a wild and varied being, stronger than any assault.
The use of props and lighting (and, as much as this goes against my desire for a smaller venue, this is probably due in part to the high-quality larger Gaillard) is pretty much impeccable. The first props are books, open pages that seem to be emanating light. Voices, quiet but strong, reverberate throughout the theater: poems are read by women in their native tongues. Some audience members may know the words, Japanese, French, Spanish. I do not, but that does not take away an iota of pleasure from hearing the rise and fall of these voices. The last poem is Margaret Atwood's "The Moment." It's read in English, of course, so I'm able to digest both the cadence and the content. For these few minutes, I feel I am able to transcend the space between.
Pagés is in the center of her dancers, all wearing a muted tan that is both skin tight and flowing. She is equal, yes, to the other women, but she is also quite clearly the reason they are all here, the reason they are moving as easily as one breathes. She's not a mother figure, exactly, maybe an older sister, showing her younger sisters the way. Atwood's poem is read slowly, carefully, the dancers moving in a matching rhythm around Pagés. I do not think I could ever capture the same beautifully deliberate ascension again.
"The moment when, after many years
Of hard work and a long voyage
You stand in the centre of your room,
House, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
Knowing at last how you got there,
And say, I own this,"
The music grows louder, the musicians shadowy seated figures in the background. They are as much a part of the production as the dancers, a part of Pagés' family, clapping and snapping and tapping and offering up shouts of "Ay, Maria!" A private lovefest that Pagés is kind enough to share with the world.
"Is the same moment when the trees unloose
Their soft arms from around you,
The birds take back their language,
The cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
And you can't breathe."
Pagés and her dancers act out the life of a woman, any woman, from giving birth to sweeping floors, to light-hearted shopping trips, to getting ready for a fancy event, to simply moving — at one point, lights dimmed, music fast-paced, the dancers appear to balance on invisible tightropes. Ah! If that's not the life of a woman ... The dancers are all able to take solo spotlights, with the other women cheering them on. Their tightly wound braids (in addition to being incredible flamenco dancers, I think another requirement is to have luscious locks) begin to loosen, the sweat beads over their bright red lips.
"No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
Climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round."
The show's strength is in its depiction of weakness. For the majority of the production we see these women exuding strength through high-energy, aesthetically pleasing physicality; they seem to be, somehow, gorgeous, lithe, indefatigable, defiant, demure, all at once. It's incredible, and exciting (there was applause every ten minutes or so after a particularly daring dance scene), but it didn't move me.
I connected to Yo, Carmen most when Atwood's poem told us we are not owners, we can possess nothing but our bodies, our breath, our minds. I shared the stage with Pagés, when the 54-year old flamenco legend, dancing to "Habanera" in front of a mirror, dressing in the famous Carmen garb — bright red robe laced with gold, dangling earrings, a red rose tucked neatly in her hair — looked out to the audience. Her adornments, beautiful, her face, strained. Carmen dressing for her predetermined fate. The small scared part of me that exists in the recesses of my mind (the little girl who was too shy/ the college girl who was too bold/ the young professional who was too confused) came to the fore. I knew that feeling, that feeling of false promise. In that moment, Carmen was talking to me.