“Families are complicated,” remarks the emcee early in Antigona, Martín Santangelo’s staging of Sophocles’ epic Antigone for the New York-based, globally renowned flamenco performance troupe Noche Flamenca -- "complicated" being a wry understatement of the explosive domestic situation in the mythical royal family of Thebes circa 400 B.C.
I caught the show on a recent visit to New York at the company's imposing home -- the West Park Presbyterian Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It now makes its San Francisco debut in a three-week run at Z Space starting on Saturday, Feb. 4, as part of an international tour. With economy and wit, the production introduces the players in this tale of tyranny, incest, and noble sacrifice, while speaking poetically to modern-day crises.
As an allegory of the power and the hazards of civil disobedience, Antigone has inspired many interpretations through the ages. Notable among them are Jean Anouilh’s 1944 retelling, which came out of Nazi-occupied France; the Living Theatre’s revolution-minded distillation of the 1960s; and Seamus Heaney’s 2003 Burial at Thebes, which drew a parallel between the posturing of the power-mad King Creon and George W. Bush’s warmongering.
Santangelo’s adaptation was sparked by the controversy in Spain over the disbarment of the high-profile judge Baltazar Garzón following his investigations in 2008 into Franco-era atrocities, notably championing families whose relatives had died in purges and whose corpses had been dumped in mass graves.
To honor both ancient and modern tales of this tragic magnitude, it seemed natural for Santangelo to turn to flamenco -- a music and dance form rooted in the tribulations of oppressed peoples. The director began to immerse himself in Sophocles and Greek theater traditions. “The Greeks were doing musical theater," Santangelo says. "The Greek scholars know that, even if many theater directors don’t: Greek classical theater was meant to be sung and accompanied by music and dance.”
The legendary flamenco artist Soledad Barrio headlines this combustible mix of dance, Greek tragedy and absurdist satire. Barrio plays Antigona, faithful daughter to King Oedipus (who, unaware of his true identity, killed his father and married his mother, precipitating a series of calamitous events) and sister to two warring brothers.
The hot-headed princelings kill each other off in a spectacular showdown of flamenco versus hip-hop, spurred on by a wailing rock guitar and the ominous pounding of a cajón (a box-shaped percussion instrument). Antigona defies her uncle, Creon, who has arbitrarily branded one of her brothers a traitor and refused to permit his burial. She pays for her insurrection with her life.
Santangelo’s libretto, delivered mostly in Spanish with lashings of other languages, and the striking score that ranges far beyond the soundscape of traditional flamenco, unleash a fierceness and vulnerability in the dancing. (English-speaking audiences need not be worried about keeping up; the entire piece is carefully surtitled.)
The work came together well before the recent U.S. presidential election cycle. But the peculiar relevance of the tale in the era of President Trump is unavoidable. It's especially evident during a scene in which Creon, having stepped into the leadership void created by the banishment of Oedipus and the violent deaths of his nephews, struts buffoonishly through a coronation ceremony that indulges his fetish for bullfighting. One of the chorus members, roped in to play the “bull,” simply rolls her eyes at each stab of the matador’s banderillas (darts).
Barrio herself is a phenomenon onstage. A winner of the New York Dance and Performance Award (“Bessie”) -- the first “Bessie” to be awarded to a flamenco dancer -- she has been called the “Baryshnikov of flamenco,” not simply for the fiery, virtuosic quality of her dancing, but also for the eloquence with which she conveys passion, sorrow and outrage.
In the aftermath of the recent post-inauguration Women’s March, which stretched from Washington, D.C. to cities around the globe, Barrio's Antigona is a unique embodiment of a tenacious, principled woman. Barrio speaks truth to power in her flamenco heels, with her sinuous wrists and fingers, steely shoulders and smoldering eyes.
Antigona runs from Saturday, Feb. 4–Saturday, Feb. 25 at Z Space in San Francisco. Information and tickets here.