Sea the light

Noche Flamenca returns to Theatre 80 with Soledad Barrio and a tale of self-realization.

OLE, SOLE Flamenco star Soledad Barrio stars in El Mar

OLE, SOLE Flamenco star Soledad Barrio stars in El Mar Photograph: Courtesy of Florcan Otway

A couple of years ago, Martin Santangelo, the artistic director of Noche Flamenca, was rereading the plays of Henrik Ibsen when he came across The Lady from the Sea. Two thoughts flashed through his mind: One was that it would be a splendid setup for flamenco. The other was the image of his wife—the spectacular, gut-wrenching dancer Soledad Barrio—in the lead.

Like the Ibsen tale, Santangelo’s new El Mar, presented as part of Noche Flamenca’s annual season at Theatre 80, tells the story of Ellida Wangel, the unhappy, repressed wife of a doctor. Her romantic past includes a mysterious sailor (known as the Stranger) who returns and demands that she choose between a life with him on the sea or a staid existence with her husband and two daughters. Once the doctor finally relents and gives her the autonomy to decide, Ellida opts to stay with him.

“The resolution is tough,” Santangelo admits. “But I’m not going to represent it in the play. It’s more that she is caught between two men and that she is on a search for an internal freedom. My resolution is that she tells them both to go to hell.” He laughs. “I think one part of Ibsen is also saying that she’s never been able to make a move by herself, but she makes a decision for once in her life, so one resolution for me is that she grows up. It’s not about her going with one guy or the other, it’s about her finding herself as a complete person and a complete woman.”

In El Mar, which runs nearly 20 minutes, Barrio stars as the anguished Ellida, who finds solace in the sea. Alejandro Granados, who has performed with the company for 12 years, is the doctor (“I’m trying to make him less savage than he usually is,” notes Santangelo), and Antonio “El Chupete” Jimenez portrays the Stranger. “He’s a dark, internal dancer, wild and very shy,” says Santangelo. “There are some qualities about him that remind me of his character—the Stranger is so outside of society, but also very timid, and Antonio captures that part of him.”

But the heart of the play is Barrio, whose raw sensuality as a dancer, no matter how many times you’ve witnessed her, is otherworldly, both thrilling and bewitching. For Santangelo, Barrio is the most essential part of El Mar; he sees his wife, in many ways, as a classic Ibsen heroine.

“We have the very practical life of a family—a husband and wife with kids—and then an impractical part, or passionate or adventurous part, which is that we work as artists,” he explains. “And for Sole, there is an unbelievable struggle and conflict between the two. Some days, she turns to me and says, ‘You know what? I would love to leave this house and not live with you or the kids and just be by myself.’ ”

Santangelo laughs—as does Barrio when the subject is brought up, even though she never gives in to her free-spirited urge: “I swallow it,” she says. “But right before a tour, I am always in a crisis. I am very worried, because we are going to a small theater, and I have to put on a nightgown. It’s not exactly what I wear as a flamenco costume, and I have to be so close to the audience. I don’t have the body of a ballet dancer. And my language and vocabulary is not of a ballet dancer. It’s flamenco.”

Santangelo is well aware of the risks involved in using the language of flamenco to tell this particular story. “Most of the narrative things I see in flamenco, I don’t like,” he says. “It’s a very tough art form to convert into a narrative world, and it’s possible to lose the freshness of flamenco or to water it down; that’s the part that most frightens me. It’s been the biggest struggle to express this story through flamenco and not fall into gimmicks or tricks. But if, in some way or another, we can be a little bit of a vehicle for Ibsen—if one woman in the audience thinks, I don’t have to go with this guy or that guy—I can find myself or connect with Sole’s power as a woman, great. That’s it.”

Barrio, for herself, connects with her character in El Mar because she understands what Ellida yearns for. “What I know is the following: that women are very romantic and that we tend to search for symbolism to fill holes through men,” she says. “Ellida could be any woman in the world. She could also be a man.”

In a sense, that’s why Santangelo has such an affinity with the works of Ibsen: “I love almost everything he’s written because he explains so much to me about society,” he explains. “We have to throw away the morals of society and if we don’t, we don’t find a real communion between people. He’s been a teacher for me all my life. And this play has that magic realism or poetry, which lends itself to dance.”

Noche Flamenca is at Theatre 80 through Aug 14.