It’s not often that you get a chance to experience the combination of a play written nearly 2500 years ago, an art form deeply ingrained in the culture of a civilization, plus, for added spice, some contemporary flourishes that may at times seem wildly incongruous and anachronistic. But, at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), the American Dance Festival (ADF) is presenting such a presentation: Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca in Martin Santangelo’s flamenco interpretation of Sophocles’ Antigone, a Greek tragedy written around 440 B.C. Combining an ancient Greek masterpiece and all of its mythologies with flamenco dance and music, probably the central life of Spanish culture, is not as far-fetched as it might sound. The basic human foibles, passions and ambitions have not changed much in two thousand plus years and this adaptation provides an interesting view.

Martìn Santangelo, Artistic Director and Producer of the dance company Noche Flamenca, developed his idea for a flamenco version of Antigone (named Antigona) after seeing a production by Living Theatre combined with several political events taking place in Spain around 2010. He developed this profound story of family ties, breaches of democratic rule and tyranny, and his wife and principal dancer Soledad Barrio provided most of the choreography. This is a sprawling big production with fourteen dancers, four stunningly brilliant musicians live on stage, and simple, but very effective lighting and props. For those who were expecting a 100% authentic start-to-finish example of the art of traditional flamenco music and dance, they were probably a bit disappointed. However, amidst the sprinkling of “foreign” cultural references there was enough of a virtuosic display of the real thing to make this a must-see.

Barrio, through her mother’s experiences during the brutal reign of Franco, is eminently suited to exude the strength it takes to live through oppression and does she ever. Through traditionally inspired flamenco dance, she is a powerful presence, seemingly portraying the message “don’t mess with me.”

If this writing is a bit short on the plot of the original play, or even Santangelo’s adaptation, there are two reasons for that: the outline of the play can easily be looked up; and my perception is that regardless of the storyline, the dance and music are way more integral to this production. 

At times Antigona feels like a variety show with an affable and audience-friendly Master of Ceremonies played by Emilio Florido. That is not necessarily a bad thing as Florido narrates much of the story using the traditional cante flamenco. For those not familiar with this style, it is a tenor range vocal style that is always passionate and teeters on the edge of yelling. Haemon, the character who is betrothed to Antigone and also the male lead, is danced by Juan Ogalla. Dressed all in black, powerfully built and oozing the stereotypical macho Spaniard, Ogalla gives a clinic on the art of flamenco dance. He elicited calls from the women in the audience as his unadorned sexuality flowed over the floodlights.

All of this would be exciting by itself, or with canned music, but flamenco demands live guitarists and these were two of the greatest I have ever heard. Eugenio Iglesias and Salva de Maria (who, along with Santangelo, also wrote the original music and vocal arrangements) played with the fire, grace and passion that elevated their jaw-dropping technical brilliance to the level of musical ecstasy. Accompanied by David Rodriguez on percussion and Hamed Traore on electric guitar and bass, this ensemble, in my view, had the biggest impact on this production – and actually got the biggest applause at the curtain call. There was also one extended guitar solo where one of the guitarists, in a mask, played a beguiling modern work, but with a traditional foundation. A shout out should also be given to the sound technicians at DPAC. The guitars were loud, crisp and distinct but retained an acoustic intimacy.

In the middle of all of these ancient stories and traditional music and dance, we suddenly heard screaming rock guitar licks and two male dancers employing hip-hop moves in a segment that seemed to be merely a gratuitous tip-of-the-hat to contemporary culture. There were several other moments like that, but about the last third of the intermission-less ninety minute program settled into extended ensemble sections that beautifully combined classic flamenco dance and music with some of Barrio’s personal touches.

Don’t let the thought of revisiting an ancient Greek play that you were made to read in high school dissuade you from attending this soul-stirring production.  A bit of pre-study to familiarize yourself with Antigone  could certainly enhance the experience, but the rare chance to see and hear world-class dancers, singers, musicians and stage designers display the enduring tradition of the art of flamenco is something you will never forget.  

Note that all of the performer’s biographical information can be found here. See the sidebar for information on the performance Saturday, June 27.