David Mead talks to Carlos Pons Guerra about his forthcoming new work, Mariposa, a Caribbean-based adaptation of Madame Butterfly for his DeNada Dance Theatre.
Carlos Pons Guerra has a name for works strong on Latin machismo and sexuality that explore gender issues but just importantly he’s a storyteller. That didn’t always find favour. When training, he sensed there was almost a stigma about narrative, that it was something from the past, something that should be stayed away from. Dance was all about the abstract, the conceptual, was the message. But he says, “I need a story so that I can work. I would try to make abstract stuff but it never happened. The story always came in somehow.”
And it’s quite a story he has for his new work, Mariposa, which transports Puccini’s Orientalist libretto for Madame Butterfly to post-revolution Cuba and a seedy dockland world of faded showgirls, rent boys looking for business and perhaps a way out, of which Mariposa (Butterfly) is one, troubled sailors and Santeria orisha spirits. With a libretto by French-Indian writer Karthika Nair, it sounds completely different from the opera or even the novella that inspired it. Guerra promises that the heart of the tale is unchanged, though, and that it remains a meaty drama that digs into repressed desires and an explores what we are ready to sacrifice in order to be loved and accepted.
The idea has its roots in a childhood fascination with the Orient. Guerra recalls reading Memoires of a Geisha about ten times. “I must have been aged eleven. I was fascinated by her.” While he knew of the opera thanks to his grandmother, who used to take him, he didn’t actually see Puccini’s Madame Butterfly until much later, however.
Thinking about why the story struck such a chord, he muses that, historically, gay men frequently experienced trauma when growing up through bullying or not being accepted. “Somehow, I feel that we are drawn to characters like Cio-Cio-san, Manon, Tosca or Norma; very strong female characters that have tragic endings or impossible loves. What I am discovering now is that attraction is kind of inherent in queer culture for men, or even for women. It’s something that’s very strongly there and these characters have always attracted me since I was a kid.”
One of the things that sparked him to make his own adaptation of Madame Butterfly was a Channel 4 documentary a few years ago about the lady boys of Bangkok and that followed the story of several men who were in the process of gender reassignment.
One particular case really stuck with him: a trans-woman who was just going through the process of transitioning at the request of her British boyfriend, despite her being happy with what was her male biological body. “He really treated her like some sort of commodity, a kind of Asian souvenir that he came to see every few months to have fun with. It was truly awful. It really made me think about how the imperialist archetype that we get in Madame Butterfly – the Western man that goes to the Orient and has this souvenir – is still very much alive.” That’s not only a British thing, stresses Guerra. “Then I thought of Spain, our relationship with the Caribbean, our colonial history.”
But setting his version in the East was never going to work, he says. “I feel so dis-attached from that culture, so foreign to it, that I don’t think I could make an honest work if I based it in Japan, or China or Thailand. So, I started thinking about what it meant to me.”
Guerra also found time to do some research while working in the Dominican Republic. “I am interested in ideas of masculinity and what the Latino male is. It was the first time I came across male prostitution, very bluntly and very directly. I would go to gay bars and they were full of men using their bodies as a means of getting a better life. There was this culture there about women wanting to marry a Spaniard so they can get out of the island. I’d just never really thought that applied to men as well.”
More research followed on subsequent trips to the Caribbean and he started reading about behaviours. “I am a research geek,” he confesses. It does all really inform the movement afterwards and it’s super important when you are making something to be thorough, he says.
Although he admires how such as David Nixon introduced Japanese music into the score for his version for Northern Ballet, Guerra soon decided that approach wasn’t right for him. Using at least parts of the Puccini score also proved difficult, not least because of the Cuban setting he had decided on. “The music is so Orientalist. It draws on a sort of musical cliché of what the West sees the East to be. Then, it is so powerful with the opera on top that whenever you try to use it with dance, it’s just too much. It’s like an overdose.”
Instead, he turned to Spanish composer Luis Miguel Cobo, whose score takes its inspiration from Caribbean sounds as well as referencing Puccini. “There’s a lot of recycled material in Cuba. That kind of influenced the music Luis wanted to create: a world that was metallic, that had recycled plastics in it, that has that kind of dirty, shanty, recycled, island feel. But also, there is some salsa, there is some bolero, but all kind of reworked and reinvented. It really is an exciting score. It also gives space for us to fall in love with the characters, and to see how they are falling in love and to understand their drama.”
And a lot of time has been spent creating movement and then working with the dancers to bring something new and unique to each character. Taking the title role of Mariposa (Butterfly) is the tall Harry Alexander, even taller when he’s en pointe, dancer with Michael Clarke Company and Julie Cunningham amongst others, and winner of the 2017 UK Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for Best Emerging Artist. Preston, the sailor, is played by the much shorter Josef Perou, formerly with Phoenix Dance Theatre and National Dance Company of Wales. “So already we subvert this idea of the sailor being the tall guy against the frailty of the woman. Having these two totally made me rethink what the characters were and what their movement was. This final version definitely plays on the appearance and characters of the dancers that we have in the room.”
Among the rest of the cast are Luke Ahmet, formerly with Scottish Ballet and Rambert, as the orisha deity; and former Ballet Hispanico dancer Eila Valls as Kate, Preston’s wife.
“What really interests me when I work with dancers is to see a relationship on stage and to see that relationship evolve,” says Guerra. “But for sure it comes from a personal place. A lot of the relationships I put on stage are queer, homosexual. On one level, Mariposa does talk about what the LGBTQ community experiences in countries in the Caribbean, and queer relationships in a colonial or post-colonial setting. But the at the heart of the work is the question, ‘What are you willing to give up for someone who loves you?’ Mariposa may be about a gay relationship, but the essence of the work is universal. What’s important is that it’s not just a work about and for queer people, it’s a work about love, and what we do to be loved and accepted.”
It is time we stopped seeing work as gay or straight in any event, he believes. “For sure, I draw on a lot of elements theatrically that might be related to queer culture, but that’s where I come from. I’m just offering on stage what my world is.” Having said that, he adds quickly that he feels that it is important that there are choreographers and dancers who are LBGTQ defining and addressing those issues. “We’re still scared of putting those queer narratives on stage, scared about talking openly about who we are as people. That we are openly gay. It’s really weird how, in this country, where we are supposed to be so open, we still have these feelings.”
And Guerra’s works with their Hispanic machismo, and homosexual/transgender themes do reflect personal experience, the place he comes from, the culture and family he belongs to. “When I have an idea, at first it seems totally random. But by the end I think, ‘Wow, that was totally about me’,” he says laughing. “All these pieces I’m making, I’m working stuff out for myself in my head. In the making of work, I resolve a lot of issues. There’s always this idea of repression, the forbidden, something wanting to transform, something wanting to come out, something wanting to escape. I think that’s been there right through.”
Returning to the topic of narrative, Guerra believes that telling stories, and those stories being clear, allows him to make strong connections with audiences. “When I was kind of conflicted about narrative and everyone was telling me that I should make abstract work, I always remembered that storytelling is one of the oldest and most human things that we have. We ourselves are made of stories. If we didn’t have stories, we wouldn’t know who we are. I’m reflecting that. We need to tell our stories on stage. There is nothing wrong in being narrative. I enjoy it. I find it exciting. How do I tell this story? How do I develop that character? That’s what really excites me about dance.”
That dialogue with the audience, that rapport, that finding a reaction, is essential, Guerra continues. “Ultimately, I am making work for people, to share with people. You sometimes hear this concept that the audience is not important and that it’s all about the artist or the work. I think that’s selfish. The arts are more of a communion. There should be give and take. It’s important that they feel included; that there is a pleasure in watching.”
Work has to say something to them too, he believes. “The artist should always be responsible, should always be trying to comment on what’s happening around them, and maybe helping change. That’s why I stay away from abstract. It’s really important to be an activist with your work. But that doesn’t mean alienating people or to shocking them for the sake of it. You should help them connect and enjoy what you’re saying and if they are doing that, they can reflect.” The transgender tragedy that is Mariposa show promises plenty of scope for that.
Mariposa is commissioned by Dance Hub Birmingham and Spin Arts, with further support from DanceXchange and the British Council.
It premieres on March 27, 2020 at the Patrick Studio at the Birmingham Hippodrome, where it can also be seen on 28th. Visit www.dancexchange.org.uk or www.birminghamhippodrome.com or call the box office on 0844 338 5000 for details and tickets.
It can then be seen at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds on April 3 (www.theatreleeds.com) and The Lowry, Salford on April 20 (www.thelowry.com), with further dates in the autumn to be announced.
Running time: Approx. 90 minutes (including interval)