Riverdance star María Pagés transforms Bizet’s classic into a masterful exploration of modern womanhood in Yo, Carmen
Growing up in Seville, María Pagés was surrounded by the sights and sounds of flamenco. Like other baby girls born in the region, one of the first outfits her mother bought her was a flamenco dress. And at parties, flamenco music and dancing would always play a large part.
For Pagés, however, it quickly became clear that flamenco dancing was much more than a fun way to pass the time at a family gathering.
“Flamenco is part of our culture, part of our sentimental education,” she says. “But it’s not the case that everybody can dance, or is dedicated to it – and I discovered that dedication very early on.
“As a child, whenever adults asked me that classic question, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I always said I don’t need to think about it – I’m already a dancer. I can’t say how I knew, I just felt as though dance was inside of me. As a child I would go to flamenco class and ballet class, and I was very serious about all of it. It was never something I just did for entertainment or treated like a hobby, I always took it seriously.”
By the age of 15, Pagés had moved away from her family home to Madrid and was dancing professionally, touring to countries all over the world. Ten years later, she formed her own company and quickly became known for combining international influences with traditional Spanish culture. So, in 1995 when composer Bill Whelan was looking for a flamenco dancer to guest in his new Irish music and dance project, he knew who to call.
“I didn’t realise just how big Riverdance would become,” says Pagés. “And of course, the section I danced in is just a small expression of what flamenco can be. But after watching it, many people who had never seen flamenco before thought maybe they’d like to see more of it.
“And although my own work is quite far away from the aesthetic of Riverdance, I have so many fans who come to see my company because they’ve been introduced to flamenco by seeing me in Riverdance.”
Pagés’ own style has been shaped over many years of choreographing for stage and screen, picking up numerous awards along the way. From a young age, she was aware of the story of Carmen, and felt a desire to address the way women are portrayed within it but wasn’t sure how.
Then in 2014, after “reflecting for a long, long time”, Yo, Carmen (I, Carmen) was born. Turning this most famous of female characters into an ordinary woman, the show blends music, choreography, poetry and theatre to debunk the stereotypical Andalusian women of Mérimée’s novella and Bizet’s opera.
Working alongside her husband, the dramaturgist and poet El Arbi El Harti, Pagés was not only responsible for the production’s choreography and direction, but is also credited with the costume design.
“For me, the idea of choreography and costume is joined together,” she explains. “Choreography is not just about the steps, it’s about many other ingredients – the lighting, costumes, stage, music. So for me it’s natural that the ideas for the costume design come at the same time as I’m creating the piece. It’s not something I do when I’ve finished choreographing – it all comes together, it’s part of the process.”
About to play the Edinburgh International Festival, Yo, Carmen is performed by seven musicians and singers and seven dancers, including Pagés herself who feels she brings more to the stage now than ever before.
“With everything you do, you grow and when you reach a mature age, you have a much better idea of who you are and what you want,” she says. “You need a lot of life experience to discover that, and the good thing about having different experiences is the knowledge you acquire – and it’s the same with your body. I’m 53 years old and have to manage my body and what it can do – but I know it better now, and how I can use it to express myself.”
WORDS: Kelly Apter
PHOTO: David Ruano
Yo, Carmen, Edinburgh Playhouse, 12-13 August, 8pm
from £11 Tel: 0131 473 2000