Back in March 2020, David Mead talked to Carlos Pons Guerra about his Caribbean-based adaptation of Madame Butterfly for his DeNada Dance Theatre. Eighteen months later, he caught up with the now very happy choreographer again as the work at last reaches the stage.
It has been long and protracted birth. Carlos Pons Guerra started work on Mariposa way back in 2016. Then, just a week before its planned March 2020 premiere, Covid struck. Later this month, another eighteen months on, it finally debuts as part of the Birmingham International Dance Festival.
Guerra is probably best known for being one of the leading queer voices in contemporary dance, but he’s also one of its leading storytelling tellers with a name for works that emphasise Latin machismo and sexuality, and explore gender issues.
In Mariposa, he shifts the story of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to a seedy dockside in the down-at-heel world of post-revolution Cuba. Mariposa (Butterfly) is a rent boy looking for a way out, and falls in love with a sailor Preston. With a libretto by French-Indian writer Karthika Nair and an original score by Spanish composer Luis Miguel Cobo, it may sound different but Guerra promises that the heart of the tale remains.
The extra 18-month delay has led to some other changes, too. Guerra explains that a lot of time was spent with the original cast, not only creating movement but working with each dancer to bring something unique to each character. But some of those dancers are now unavailable. The role of Preston, the sailor, originally to be taken by Josef Perou, will now be performed by Stan West, who toured with Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and danced one of the Angel Shadows in Marianne Elliot’s award-winning Angels in America for the National Theatre. Preston’s wife, Kate, will now be danced by Corey Annand, who appeared in Guerra’s delightful Penguins, but is maybe best known for creating the title role in Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl. From match girl to penguin to jaded wife is quite a journey, he laughs.
“What really interests me when I work with dancers is to see a relationship on stage and to see that relationship evolve. New dancers have meant new relationships. It’s really changed how the characters have developed and how you read them,” says Guerra.
“So, we’ve had a mixture of restaging and reinventing, because there are different dynamics. Our main roles are Preston and Mariposa. Joe was a bit older than Harry. He had a beard and looked like he had years of experience. There was the power dynamic of age. But Stan and Harry are very similar ages, both very young. It has changed the dynamic completely. It feels like two young me who fall in love, but the social and political constraints conspire to stop the relationship from happening.”
Similarly with Annand, who replaces Eila Valls. “Corey is in her mid-twenties but has the ability to look nine. As Kate, the wife, she looks so frustrated. We’re playing it as if she is jaded and in a very hollow marriage. It’s actually tragic that she’s stuck in the position she is.”
During the lockdowns, Guerra continued pursuing his Masters degree in Cultural Studies, researching post-colonialism. “There was obviously a post-colonial background in Mariposa, but I think having read writers like Homi Bhabha and Edward Said, and mixing that with queer theory, I sort of got pushed to queer colonialism. I think the story is very much the same but the way we are working through it has changed quite a bit from being about a love story and personal, human sacrifice, to also being about inescapable colonial issues.”
Going back to March 2020, Guerra says, “It was such a bizarre time. I remember I spent the weekend rehearsing the main roles. For me, like Kenneth MacMillan, the main pas de deux is what everything spins out from. And then it all stopped. On a practical level it was very stressful. For example, my family are in Spain, which went into lockdown before we did.” Although the UK stayed open while, he says watching other countries was like watching a chain reaction. “It was obvious shutdown was coming.”
Whether to cancel the premiere and tour became a major worry for Guerra and his company. Continuing to rehearse and hoping to perform meant paying people. But then if cancellation was forced on them, would there then be the money to resume production when things opened up? At the same time, if they cancelled, they would have to cover venues’ costs; and the venues didn’t want to cancel themselves.
“It was really hard, but then venues started to realise it wasn’t going to happen. For me, the hardest thing was telling the dancers. I had to make that call. I did have a cry. We had all been working so hard. But it had to happen, and it was for the safety of everyone.” The resilience that everyone then showed, which in a way mirrors that of Mariposa, is inevitably finding its way into the work, he says.
“But we are there now. You know, this work started in 2016 and it’s now 2021. I think maybe they should make a movie about all the things that have happened,” he says laughing.
The long-awaited Mariposa promises much.
Mariposa premieres on September 30, 2021 at the Patrick Studio at the Birmingham Hippodrome, where it can also be seen on October 1.
DeNada Dance Theatre are also performing The Bull and the Moon (for audiences aged 3+) at the Midlands Arts Centre (mac) as part of the Birmingham International Dance Festival on September 25 and 26, 2021; and at Yorkshire Dance, Leeds on October 2.