Dancers move from the restrictive confines of seventeenth-century-inspired Catholicism to the liberating, empowering passion of flamenco in Patricia Guerrero’s scintillating piece, Catedral.
Patricia Guerrero’s award-winning piece, Catedral, was the last event in Sadler’s Wells’ Flamenco Festival 2019. It represents, in Guerrero’s own words, ‘the professional and personal liberation that I have needed to be able to break the rules of flamenco and create my own language’. It explores the ‘interior, the physical and aesthetic parts’ of Guerrero’s art.
Catedral took the form of a series of seamless vignettes. It moved from a sombre, strained beginning to an acoustic and emotively danced crescendo in which Guerrero vibrated across stage, heels rapping with such speed that it seemed like she was gliding. The piece then closed with a final, exultant, sensual dance.
Catedral began in disorientating darkness and silence. Slowly the percussive accompaniment (Augustin Diassera and David Chupete) simmered, intermittent sounds built to clanging bells and hissing cymbals, creating a discordant, sonic cathedral. The stage was barely illuminated: dim shafts of light beamed from ornate windows imagined high up above the performance space. Guerrero and her chorus of three dancers (Maise Marquez, Ana Agraz and Laura Santamaria) emerged in dark medieval dresses with wide skirts and angular shoulders that echoed the architecture of the stage and sounds. Two doppelgangers (tenor Diego Perez and counter-tenor Daniel Perez), both dressed as cardinals, drifted onto the stage, their vibrant red costumes the only jarring point of colour. Their voices pierced in high harmonies, with words that sounded like a prayer or an auspicious incantation – perhaps a warning. It could even have been a song from hell.
This first movement was a sombre, strained dance. Guerrero and a trio of identically dressed dancers had their hair slicked back in severe ponytails and moved as one. Together they looked like furies. The women’s gestures were rigid and tense, at times even robotic, their costumes stiff and restraining, iterating the limits placed upon them by the church and by the traditions of flamenco. Guerrero herself wore a mantilla and performed some of the dance from a chair, catching her arms, legs and even her whole body each time they tried to escape their confines. The dancers moved in a slow rhythm with repetitive steps that were at times hypnotic. There was a wonderful moment when the chorus paced across the stage, swaying forwards and backwards like a pendulum. The hot theatre and the dim lighting and the spellbinding music were soporific and I felt my head nodding, the spectacle pulling me under.
But I shifted, woke, sat up, as the superb guitarist (Juan Requena) started to play and Jose Angel Carmona began to sing. During this segment of Catedral, the dancers slipped their constraints – literally, in Guerrero’s case: her stiff dress dropped slowly from her arms to reveal a flowing dress of shining dark silk. With this liberation the music changed; the percussionists were joined by a guitarist and singer accompanying the women, whose movements and costumes became more fluid, swaying their hips, raising their arms, clapping hands and snapping fingers in a balletic enunciation of freedom. The music and dancers stopped and started: it was a little like free-form jazz, confounding the expectations of a dance that flowed and continued, as if the dancers were pushing the boundaries of flamenco in different directions, testing its limits, though not quite able to break free.
The singer’s ululations and the guitar’s excitement built as the dancers surged into excitement. Swaying their hips, raising their arms, their faces were contorted in an expression of painful ecstasy. Blue light suffused the stage and the movements became more of a communication than an exploration. Each member of the dancing chorus took a solo turn, showing off her moves, whilst the others were clapping and snapping and stamping their heels using the language of flamenco to exalt and praise. Something about the extreme energy and intensity of their movement reminded me of a hip hop battle. The dance became defiant, expressing a do-not-mess-with-me womanly power. And Catedral really is a womanly dance: hips and ass and ankles, hands flicking dismissively, raised in defiance or in allure. Guerrero’s own turn in this most energetic part of the show was astonishing: every movement fiercely precise, her arms and hips twisting, defiant; her heels knocking an incessant rhythm that seemed intended to exorcise, to keep at bay all those who would try to contain her.
Catedral culminated in a virtuoso solo. Guerrero slid onto the stage in a black silk shirt dress soon to be flicked open, then shed to reveal a ruffled red lace gown beneath, releasing long, wild hair – every part of her body now expressing her own freedom. The choir-boy cardinals glided back onstage and sang their terrible harmonies, their song converging with the melody of the guitar and singer. The sounds from the restrictive beginning of Catedral combined with its expressive centre, producing a wall of jarring sound. Guerrero’s movements in this final segment were less expressive, with fewer joyous, flamboyant gestures than in earlier movements. Perhaps this was because the final movement saw Guerrero reconciling her own creativity with the tropes of traditional flamenco, after having pushed against and experimented with its rigid requirements. Or perhaps it suggested that Guerrero was sufficiently confident to resist the confines of the church and dance herself into the woman she wanted to be.
Flamenco has a whole language of its own, comprising many rhythms, movements and music: a flamenco connoisseur might have more technical insights to offer into Catedral; they might say that the choreography and music communicated so much more. Whatever the answer, Sadler’s Wells was on its feet at the end of the performance, giving Guerrero and her company the standing ovation they so well deserved.
Patricia Guerrero’s Catedral was performed at Sadler’s Wells on Sunday 14th July. Click the links for more information about Patricia Guerrero, the show and Sadler’s Wells’ upcoming productions for their summer / autumn 2019 programme.