Noche Flamenca Brings Passion, Soul to “Antigona”

by Jean Schiffman

Noche Flamenca reimagines the tale of Antigone for flamenco.

In 2012, when Noche Flamenca artistic director Martin Santangelo wanted to create a flamenco version of “Antigone,” he gave Soledad Barrio, the company’s principal dancer, a copy of the play. In Sophocles’ classic Greek tragedy, Antigone defies Creon, ruler of Thebes, by daring to bury her outcast brother, Polyneices. For that crime, she is condemned to death—but commits suicide.

“Isn’t Antigone amazing?” Santangelo said to Barrio, who is his wife.

Barrio responded, “Yeah, she’s a normal person. I completely understand.”

Explains Santangelo, “She understood it in the most natural way. She didn’t put Antigone on a pedestal. She sees the importance of family versus the importance of politics.”

The play, with its themes of family loyalty, personal integrity and female strength, was one that Barrio, who is Spanish, felt intuitively. Her parents are united in love, divided by ideology: her mother was orphaned at an early age, during the fascist Franco regime, when her father—Barrio’s grandfather—was arrested as a political prisoner and killed, whereas her husband—Barrio’s father—is pro-Franco. It is Barrio’s mother, who tells stories about her life during the Franco years when the family was starving and would kill stray cats for food, stories that make listeners laugh and weep, who provided the model for Barrio’s smoldering portrayal of the heroine.

Santangelo, a native New Yorker whose Argentinean mother was a dancer with Martha Graham, met Barrio in Madrid in a dance class and fell in love. The two formed Noche Flamenca there in 1993 and moved the company to New York a few years ago. They have been performing “Antigona” since its premiere in 2014.

“My biggest problem with dance plays is: What was it all about?” says Santangelo. “I usually have no idea. So the biggest thing for me was to tell the story. The emotional part is the music, which tells us what to feel.” With his multilingual 21-year-old daughter, he translated the Greek poetry into Spanish and then into English over the course of two grueling years, turning it into lyrics as well as spoken text. “There are strict ways to sing in flamenco,” he explains, “and the translations had to adhere to the form of the singer.” He directs the piece and also composed the music and the vocal arrangements with guitarists Eugenio Iglesias and Salva de Maria. “The translation was strict storytelling,” Santangelo says. “All the lyrics, everything said or sung, is taken from Sophocles”—except for some excerpts from an essay on Antigone. Barrio created the choreography.

Santangelo had long been interested in the story of Antigone, which seemed a perfect match for the dramatic and soulful music, song and dance that characterize flamenco, but was further compelled to create the piece when, in 2010, a judge was suspended from the Spanish court
for supporting the rights of families to re-bury anti-Franco relatives who’d been relegated to mass graves.

Along the way, Santangelo cold-called theater director Lee Breuer for dramaturgical advice;
of the acclaimed experimentalist, he says, “His productions are some of the most humane things I’ve seen in terms of complexity and belief in human beings.” Santangelo workshopped the 90-minute dance-theater piece in, among other places, San Juan Bautista, California, at El Teatro Campesino. He’d worked with the theater company years back and looked to charismatic founder/artistic director Luis Valdez for inspiration.

“Antigona” comprises 12 performers—dancers, musicians (playing guitar and percussion) and singers (who also, at times, play roles and speak). Most come from Spain, with a few from New York, New Mexico and Puerto Rico. Staged without a set, the show incorporates half- and full-face masks made of leather, in the Italian mask tradition.

For Barrio, the experience of dancing the role of Antigone is emotionally demanding. Santangelo describes her as a “Method dancer,” who immerses herself in the part in a deep way. It’s a role she could not have danced at the age of 20, he muses: “There are elements in it of motherhood, virginity, mother-sister relationship, mother-daughter relationship. I don’t think you can understand it emotionally or intellectually at a young age… Reading Sophocles, I see the scars of life experience within Antigone…” Before going on stage Barrio connects to the character by thinking deeply about her family, says Santangelo, and about love. But when the show begins, and her technical skills, emotions and artistry come together, she knows she must always be telling the story. A beautiful moment never exists for the sake of beauty, but only if it propels the story forward. 

As “Antigona” continues to be performed, Santangelo continues to work on it. “Sophocles was a genius and a lover of human beings, with so much compassion and sympathy for human nature,” he says. “When I understand something about him more deeply, the show changes—choreography, text or music.” He adds, “The wonderful thing about flamenco is, we improvise a lot. The more disciplined the structure, the more the performers can improvise, and this is a really tightly structured play.

“It’s important to be doing this now, unfortunately. It’s a wonderful reminder of how when we become tyrants we lose our humanity. I hope to come to a day when we do not have to do this play.”

Feb. 4 → 25

Z Space

450 Florida St., San Francisco 811-4111