Last year I took a man I was trying to impress to see DeNada Dance Theatre’s Ham and Passion. The man I was trying to impress had never seen any contemporary dance before, and I thought Ham and Passion would be a fun and easy place to start, for two reasons: firstly, Carlos Pons Guerra’s choreography excels at the sort of technical showmanship that, to those unfamiliar with a broad choreographic range, looks like what they were expecting (dramatic arabesques, lyrical balletic expressiveness, remarkable shows of flexibility and strength); secondly, it’s totally bananas. Ham and Passion went down well, I think – the man and I still see one another, and he still lets me drag him out to contemporary dance shows.
So, entering DeNada’s TORO: Beauty and the Bull, I feel that I had some idea what to expect. I know I will see legs stretched high and duets drenched in poetry; I know to expect queerness and humour; I know there will be a soundtrack of old Spanish crooners; I know traditional icons will be referred to and subverted (the Virgin Mary in Ham and Passion; matadors in TORO) and I know, above all, there would be an unashamed and intense preoccupation with sex and pleasure.
And for the first half, I am on cheerfully familiar ground. Emma Walker, as the Beauty, spends a solid proportion of the first half unconscious and spread-eagled on the floor, a pretty silk kimono untied over a white lace basque and a hot pink fan clutched in one hand. The men who fight over her – by literally dragging her body around on the floor and pressing on bits they want to claim – strut, thrust their hips and literally squawk like the cock(erel)s they are. Walker, once conscious, controls these horny roosters by snapping her fan at them; they follow its progress like kittens watching a dangling string.
When the Bull/Beast arrives, there’ a subtle shift in atmosphere, but nothing that doesn’t fit the wry aesthetic. Marivi Da Silva excels as the bull-woman hybrid who excites the Beauty’s sympathy and desire. In a long, flamenco-like red skirt, a bondage harness that straps up her breasts, and a distinctly BDSM-flavoured mask/horned headdress, Da Silva moves with earthy, grounded power. Where we can say Walker is the classical woman –long lines, arabesque penchées, straight back, straight legs, straightness – Da Silva is low, graceful, curved of back and arm, disrupting lines, queer. Walker’s Beauty is seduced, her lines break, and the two perform a floorbound duet of intense sensual power before Da Silva carries her new lover off, leaving the men squawking crossly.
It is TORO’s second act that truly discombobulates. The Bull brings her Beauty to a community of bull-men, described by Guerra as ‘dragimals’ – animal-men in drag, in the same skirt and with the same make-up and bondage horns as Da Silva. They writhe, flirt and caress one another in slow coils, until the Beauty is moved to join them. There is no getting past the erotics of their dance; merely describing it as ‘sensual’ does not do justice to the sheer carnality on stage, celebrated and delineated with remarkable frankness. It’s more play party than corps de ballet.
The arrival of the matadors changes everything. They are men in waist-high scarlet leggings, hard, upright and forceful in their masculinity. One seizes a ‘dragimal’ and forces him through a tenderly vicious duet; it is impossible not to read the matador’s caressing manipulation of the dragimal as a violation, or a mockery of the dragimal’s fluid, bending, queering body.
The men drag poor Beauty into the centre stage. The Beauty attempts to join in a classical pas de deux but at every turn becomes frantic, kicks out and tries to escape her role in the dance, to no avail. Two men grab her, force her, shove her into a flouncy white dress and bride’s veil (cementing her role in the binary, cisnormative structure of male-female relations), and tie her to the curtains. It’s only a performance, but it is powerfully distressing to watch two men throw a frightened woman around in pursuit of their own pleasure. The Bull is revealed as de-horned, looking frightening naked without her mask; the matadors have literally cut her down to size.
The robotic pelvic thrusts of the first act, so hilarious in their send-up of straight male sexuality, come back into play, but they begin to look violent, unrelenting, assaulting. Though the bodies of the matadors never touch the two women, it’s clear what happens at the end of this piece; first the Bull and then Beauty (attempting to shield her lover’s body) are raped, and Beauty dies or collapses of her injuries. It’s horrible. There’s no getting around how horrible it is to watch.
Guerra’s programme notes say that TORO portrays the most feared monster: ‘the white alpha (and often fascist) male, the one that silences voices, that harasses, that bullies, that colonises and brutally destroys virgins and lands’. The beasts are beasts in their eyes because they are different – I come back again to the word queer – they are queer, and they need to be subjugated for no other reasons that the cementing of power. TORO is sexy, silly and flamboyant, yes, until, suddenly, it isn’t, until suddenly it is a terrifying and all too real horror story about what it’s like to be a woman, or queer, or a person of colour, or a native of a colonised land. The shift in gears is shocking, but it’s necessary. TORO is an ambitious, impassioned work with a kernel of cruel truth in its giddy heart.
TORO: Beauty and the Bull was performed at Sadler’s Wells on 25 – 26 April 2018. Click here for more details.