Saucy, sensual and “free as a bird”, the character of Carmen, most famously knows through Georges Bizet's opera, raises some problems. As beautiful and loved as the music and story are, the sultry Romani temptress is an unfortunate stereotype, framed and explored only through her impact on the men she interacts with, most of whom view her as a sexual conquest. In Yo, Carmen (Spanish for “I, Carmen”), dancer, director and choreographer María Pagés and her company offer a new perspective on the character, making her more rounded and sympathetic while exploring some of the issues that still affect women today. Saturday’s performance was presented as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.

© Beth Chalmers
© Beth Chalmers
The production opens as dramatically as it continues, with Spanish fans “dancing” in the spotlight, whilst the dancers are unlit. The spinning intricate fan-work creates a puppet-show effect, especially when one fan, representing a bullfighter, is supported by two closed-fan spears to stab a bright red fan, the bull, which shakes as if trembling. This spectacular opening is just the first of various examples where light is used to enhance the atmosphere. At one point, crossed light beams create a star shape on the stage and the group of all-female dancers balance along the beams as if walking on tight rope before gaining their balance and dancing more confidently, swishing their skirts and creating a magical effect as light falls unevenly on the rippling fabric. Later the fantastic group of onstage instrumentalists, performing Bizet's music on guitar and cello, are backlit by an orange glow creating silhouettes that invoke a sleepy Spanish sunset.

A beam of light entices the dancers towards it and, in a beautiful segment, singer Ana Ramón slowly walks across the stage to the light, her passionate Spanish song mesmerising the entire theatre. Ramón’s singing is fantastic whenever she appears. She teaches the dancers to read in a joyful lesson which includes banging on books, stamping feet and intricate arm movements. It is a reminder of the importance of the right of women to education, itself as a passage to happiness and freedom.

Ramón’s gorgeous singing is the perfect fit for the lullaby accompaniment to María Pagés’s dance about raising a child: from pregnancy to birth, from rocking a baby to educating and playing once the child is older. The relationship between Pagés, as a mother, and an adult dancer playing her daughter is extremely credible, as the mother dances a few steps ahead and the daughter eagerly copies just behind.

The conflict many women face between raising a family and having a career is highlighted when this idyllic scene is juxtaposed by a number where all the dancers are working as domestic servants, with feather dusters, brooms and aprons. Although at work, they are determined to have fun and what follows is the most upbeat housework dance since little orphan Annie. Alongside sweeping and dusting, the music gets increasingly faster, the zapateado foot tapping rapider than torrential rain, dishtowels used as paso capes, one woman playfully tickling another with her duster, until finally the bell tolls for the end of the shift and they fling the dishtowels up in the air, creating quite a mess!

© Beth Chalmers
© Beth Chalmers
Next comes darkness, all the more effective after the frenzy of the previous number. Pagés, who has returned home from work, lights candles and dusts her dress down. Her soft, relaxed movements are so evocative that the audience can empathetically feel the release of tension. She sways and stretches, every motion completely natural. Each element: the contrast with the previous number, Pagés’s skill at making the audience feel empathy, and the clever atmospheric lighting comes together beautifully making this scene an understated masterpiece. 

I was slightly disappointed that the performance takes a more didactic approach later on. Pagés and Ramón lead the entire company in a song that rails at the beauty industry for making women feel bad about their bodies, just to sell them make-up and anti-wrinkle cream. It is a fair message and in-keeping with the performance’s themes, but after the subtle beauty of the candle scene, I found it a little forced. On reflection, I wonder whether that was the point - whether we need to be comfortable listening to women decrying injustices when they are loud and forceful as well as when they are soft and beautiful? I did feel, however, that the later scene where Pagés stands in front of a mirror slowly dressing herself in fancy traditional Spanish garments only to immediately cast them off again, got across the same point more effectively, using no words.

Yo, Carmen is more a character study than an adaptation. The character of Carmen is used here to represent the experiences of women as seen by women, rather than through a male lens. As Pagés insists in her mid-production speech, “We are all Carmen”.