Impressions of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Elba: Waiting for Pepe by Carlos Pons Guerra

June 18, 2020

David Mead

When it comes to watching dance online, I’m with George Balanchine who rightly said that watching it on TV (remember, they hadn’t even got round to DVDs let alone computers and the internet in his day) was like reading about a murder in a newspaper: a poor substitute giving no sense of the terror of the real thing. But while it’s a long way from ideal, what many streamings have done is allow us to glimpse works, sometimes by choreographers we know, that we haven’t had a chance to cast our eyes on before.

So to Waiting for Pepe by Spanish-born now Leeds-based Carlos Pons Guerra, created for Ballet Hispanico from New York City in 2018. Pons Guerra has become well-known in Britain for his narrative, sometimes controversial works that are strong on Latin machismo and sexuality, and that draw on his own background.

While Waiting for Pepe is inspired by Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, it does not tell the story of the play as such, however. Think of it more as impressionist dance: choreography that conveys the feeling and mood of the situation rather than being a literal depiction of it. It’s certainly not as grim or graphic as Las Hermanas, Kenneth MacMillan’s distillation of the play. Then again, could anything be?

Pons Guerra takes everything out of that house in 1930s Spain. The everyday dresses, pants, shirts, shorts and canvas sneakers, and the lack of a set, have the effect of making it timeless. It could be today. He also introduces a mixed cast, in contrast to the play, where even the focus of the sisters’ attention, the Pepe of the title of this work, never actually makes an appearance. He does appear here, although only as a neon-lit cockerel hovering high above the action. In a sense like the Pepe of the play: there but not there.

WaitingforPepe_Ballet Hispanico in Waiting for Pepe by Carlos Pons GuerraPhoto Paula Lobo
Ballet Hispanico in Waiting for Pepe by Carlos Pons Guerra
Photo Paula Lobo

The repression, conformity and suppressed desire of the Lorca original are certainly here, however. The opening finds us in a cramped and constrained world. The ensemble dance is tight, regimented and strict as the dancers move in close formation. There is a sense of wanting to break free but of being unable to do so. Different dancers are shown bullied and effectively becoming social outcasts, cowering in fear. Anyone can be the focus of the mob, it seems. There are moments where dancers cover their breasts or genitals, presumably in an attempt to defend themselves, although actual meaning is unclear.

As what appear to be direct references to the play work their they in, the dance gets more frenzied, more non-stop. It feels like an orgy, and the sexual positions are there if you look. Unfortunately, while that initial feeling of oppression, a pressure cooker waiting to explode, doesn’t quite disappear, it does dissipate somewhat.

In all this, women are still bullied. One figure repeatedly bangs a long pole into the stage reminiscent of the cane used by the sisters’ mother, Bernarda Alba, in the original. In the present climate, it’s impossible not to see a parallel with our leaders. ‘You will do as you are told.’

Dancers scream in sexual frustration and release, then one particularly in anguish, just as Adela might have done on learning that her older sister Angustias is to marry Pepe, or perhaps later when she believes he has been shot. She doesn’t hang herself as in the play, but Waiting for Pepe does end with one of the women stretching her arms up towards the always out of reach cockerel-Pepe before collapsing.

Ballet Hispanico will be a new company to viewers in Britain. The dancers are terrific with an amazing ability to switch frantic action to superbly controlled almost slow-motion. Some delicious slow attitude turns remain in the memory in particular. It would be great to see them here when (let’s be positive!) international touring is able to resume. With the company’s Latin background, I can’t help feeling they would be a perfect fit for Let’s Dance International Frontiers.

Waiting for Pepe by Carlos Pons Guerra is available on Ballet Hispanico’s YouTube page.