Noche Flamenca’s production of “Antigona” at La MaMa on East 4th Street in Manhattan, scheduled for March 19-April 5, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 Pandemic travel restrictions from Europe in March, as most of the cast comes from Spain. Then all of New York went into lockdown.
For Bessie Award-winning bailaora/choreographer Soledad Barrio, who embodies the role of Antigona, that meant isolating with her husband, the company’s artistic director/choreographer/producer Martín Santangelo and their two daughters, ages 19 and 25. Instead of hunkering down in their Inwood apartment, they opted for Santangelo’s mother’s spacious Upper West Side digs. And like most shut-ins with time on their hands, they proceeded to take on long overdue renovating.
Santangelo’s mother, Luly, 84, who was a dancer with Martha Graham and Alwin Nikolais (and by coincidence one of my amazing dance teachers at NYU) was visiting her native Buenos Aires, Argentina, when the ban was put into effect. “It’s better she’s not here,” said Santangelo. “Argentina is one of the few countries that took care of this with extreme intelligence and speed. They shut down three weeks before the virus began to spread, so there have been fewer deaths and infections.”
In a phone interview on April 13 with Barrio and Santangelo (translating for Barrio), we talked about their acclaimed “Antigona,” which has been performed more than 100 times, primarily in the States. The 80-minute show is based on Sophocles’ tragedy (ca. 441 BCE), and features choral song and dance, which translates very well into flamenco. Briefly, two brothers, leading opposite sides in the Thebes civil war, died fighting each other for the throne. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes and brother of the former Queen Jocasta (and inadvertent wife of her son Oedipus), has decided that Eteocles will be honored, but Polynices will lie unburied on the battlefield, left to the elements and carrion animals. Antigone defies Creon and attempts to bury her brother and suffers the ultimate punishment.
The show was conceived about a decade ago when Santangelo was taken with Bertolt Brecht’s 1948 adaptation. “The first scene is intended to draw the parallel between the death of Polynices which marks the first and dramatically key event in Sophocles' “Antigone,” with that of a soldier returning from the front who is a deserter and is lynched from a lamppost,” explained Santangelo. “Creon is played as a Nazi-style dictator, and the cast in most productions wears either modern or World War II German costumes to make the parallel more obvious.”
The plot resonated with both Santangelo, whose mother is from Argentina, and Barrio, who was born in Spain and still has family there. Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-1983) was the period of the right-wing military dictatorship in which between thousands of people disappeared. In Spain, the devastating Civil War (1936-1939) and its aftermath claimed the lives of an estimated hundreds of thousands perpetrated by right-wing dictator Francisco Franco’s “white terror.” In both countries locating the mass graves, identifying the remains and reburying them has been a political firestorm.
“Antigona” is more technically challenging than Noche Flamenca’s traditionally intimate flamenco shows because of its large cast of between 17-20, consisting of musicians, singers and dancers, with only three or four women in the chorus residing in the U.S. “ “We would love to do it more often and abroad, but it’s expensive to produce,” acknowledged Santangelo.
Sections of the work are intentionally reserved for choreographic improvisation. “When she’s burying her brother, there’s music that’s set, but she improvises,” Barrio said. “Also, inside of the cave before she commits suicide, it’s about 40 percent improvised. There are parts of the play where the structure always has to be the same to narrate it. However, there are other moments where it’s necessary to have improvisation so that we can all live those moments.”
Barrio, who is an intuitive and internal performer, possesses a preternatural connection to her character. “I’ve done it for many, many years,” she explained. “Because I love what I do, I go deep into my character.”
She also identifies with Antigona. “One of her character traits is to love more than herself and who she is. She’s very passionate, and her objective is to take care of her family. It’s related to my life also to be connected with family. One part of flamenco is love, passion and concern about the family unit. I connect with that a lot, too.”
Right now, Barrio’s concern is for her 81-year-old mother in Spain. ”The doctors told her she may or may not have corona virus. She thinks it might be something else, but they won’t allow her to go to the hospital because there aren’t enough tests.”
Before the shelter in place, Barrio used to swim and take ballet classes daily as well as teach flamenco at her studio on West 86th Street. Barrio thinks about creating online teaching, but for now she, Santangelo and the girls are focused on cleaning, renovating, painting, caulking and sanding Luly’s apartment to ready it for her return. “I’ve destroyed my hands cleaning so much,” she said.
“I do everything or nothing,” she acknowledged. “I’m diving into the abyss so I can resuscitate when this is over.”
To view Noche Flamenca and Barrio’s remarkable performances, go to nocheflamenca.com
Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca in "Antigona".
Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown