DeNada Dance Theatre: Ham and Passion

Phil Sanger as drag-artiste Anna in Carlos Pons Gerra's "Passionaria"photo by Maria Falconer

Making my way from Elephant and Castle to Oval, I find myself excited for an evening in which I will encounter the new. I’m walking down a street I have never walked down before despite having lived in London for almost a decade, coming to a theatre – the Blue Elephant – which I haven’t visit yet and watching an evening of performance by a choreographer – Carlos Pons Guerra – whose work I have never seen.

I’m meeting up with Marianne Tuckman as we are writing a double review for this triple-bill. Marianne’s position is different to mine in that she knows Carlos from her years in Leeds as a Northern School of Contemporary Dance student. As I find her at the bar of the Blue Elephant, she updates me on what she already knows about tonight’s works. It’s too late for me to let her know I would probably prefer to be surprised by tonight’s performance for better or for worse, but she talks with such passion that I can’t help but listen closely to what she has to share with me.

The show starts and I begin to think, from break to break, that what they have called a triple-bill should be more appropriately called a tryptic. These three pieces – Passionaria, Young Man! and O Maria – may have been choreographed at different moments in time but all share a common code, aesthetics, subject matter and symbolism. The music in all pieces ranges between the suit-like symphonic and the Spanish folklorico-kitch, the movement vocabulary is one where steps with French-accented name and surname are plentiful, and the expressivity of faces and actions may have made Kurt Jooss proud of having left us his enduring mark. A leg of Spanish cured ham (as well as other Spanish cured meets and stereotypes) is always featured in all three pieces. A Spanish ham which I find a bit too obvious and blunt for representating masculinity, chauvinism and regime. A Spanish ham immersed in a world where nobody seems to fit within the norm and becomes an object of both loath and desire.

I have come to experience the new but I seem to encounter the old; the old as for the forms of movement, composition with the music and favouring of the narrative. But I think form shouldn’t be a problem. The wonderful dancing and parodic choreography was able to deliver a content that grabbed me from the very beginning. A content that brought me into a different kind of old, like in a ‘good old friend’. The themes, the characters portrayed by the dancers and the songs Carlos chose, brought me back to my late teens when I was part of the theatre group at university in Gran Canaria. It reminded me of the kind of theatre we would represent as well as the kind of lifestyle we aimed for and circles we would frequent. The years of exploring self-expression, nonconformity and queer culture a long time before I even knew about queer even being a thing. Those years seem now to have happened so long ago that I feel like I have almost forgotten they ever happened. For this reason, I can only say a last thing to Carlos: gracias mi niño.

Antonio de la Fe

My evening also begins at Oval, a tube station well stocked with pot plants. Turn right, turn left then right again and I am welcomed at the Blue Elephant Theatre. It’s my first time here and I like this place. It has the centred buzz of a theatre that has got its priorities sussed. I find Antonio and we sit in a corner of the bar eating cheap crisps feeling relaxed. This doesn’t last. The lights go down and DeNada Dance Theatre’s London premier of its triple bill instantly replaces my green-shrub-influenced-calm with steamy-hot-red-passion.

Passionaria is a solo set backstage in a cabaret during the Spanish Civil War, where drag-artiste Anna, (played by Phil Sanger), has just murdered her fascist husband (played by a phallic shaped leg of cured ham). Sitting in the front row, I am confronted by a 6 foot body made of hard muscle, heavily made up and skimpily dressed in a kimono revealing glimpses of a defiantly empty bra. The last time I saw this piece it was from the horizon, sitting on the back row of The Riley Theatre. It works much better close-up. The proximity intensifies the show, forcing me to share Anna’s filthy cigarette, forcing me empathise with Phil’s strange yet imposing figure.

Young Man, performed by Victoria Da Silva and Azzurra Ardovini is a tempestuous tale of homo-erotic seduction set in a landscape with cheeky references to ‘the Spanish macho’. Victoria has been dancing this androgynous character for three years now and for me, the most striking thing about the piece is how at home it is within her body. Her skin is textured, embossed by her imagination’s total commitment to this character. Stanislavski would be impressed.

The night closes with O Maria, a trio set in the claustrophobic kitchen of a catholic family in 1950’s Seville. Victoria (now a refined Spanish lady) returns to the stage with the same rabid sexual appetite, taking the dominant role in a bondage routine with childlike Azurra. Phil, appears as the Virgin Mary incarnate, freeing Azurra and enigmatically facilitating her sensuousness in an technical pas-de-deux. The piece asks whether Mary wanted to be a symbol of chastity and imagines her temptation to fall.

I was first introduced to DeNada’s work crouched under a table in a crowded room at Can Ruines, an art festival organised in the home of a collective of Leeds based creatives. This particular event aimed to raise funds to get the newly formed company down to London for Resolution Festival. Three years on and the company is slicker. Increased funding has meant that thoughtful lighting and set design have been made possible but the rawness that first attracted me to Carlos Pons Guerra’s work remains intact. I would say, however, that the use of sound could be more contentiously considered. The bold, vintage soundtrack is usually effective but it may be worth considering where it is appropriate and where it is overpowering.

Marianne Tuckman