In 1936, when Spain's Francisco Franco invaded his own country "to save it from itself," one of the pollutant forces he saw fit to extinguish was the poet Federico Garca Lorca. "He was killed because he was a Red queer," one of the drivers who, in August 1936, took Lorca to an isolated olive grove to be executed is reported to have explained 20 years later.
In Cruel Garden, Houston Ballet resident choreographer Christopher Bruce and theatrical impresario Lindsay Kemp have produced a full-length dance theatrical evocation of Lorca via his death, his life story and his art -- all of which overlay each other inseparably. Although created in 1979, Cruel Garden didn't receive its American premiere until 1993, when it was presented by the Houston Ballet, which remains the only U.S. company to have the demanding work in its repertoire. In that, Houstonians can count themselves fortunate, for as the current revival shows, Cruel Garden remains an amazement, a potent dance piece that stirs the imagination and the emotion.
The ballet's central metaphor comes from one of Lorca's most famous poems, "Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter," in which he memorializes his friend Ignacio Snchez Mejas, a bullfighter who was fatally gored by a bull "at five o'clock in the afternoon." Lorca repeats that line through his poem like a death knell; as William Carlos Williams interpreted it, the meaning is that "every minute is eternity -- and too late." In this spirit, Bruce and Kemp take Lorca's last moment and stretch it, if not into an eternity, into a 90 minute piece of ballet cum theater.
Cruel Garden takes place in dream time, starting gradually, as when sleep slowly descends. The curtain is up from the very beginning to show a simple wooden barn and a blood-stained bullring; there's no fanfare of a curtain parting. Instead, as the lights dim, a white-clad dancer -- Moon -- quietly slides down the front of a raw-board partition while a Lorca poem about the effects of the full moon is whispered in Spanish. What follows is a series of surrealist tableaux, often difficult to decipher, but still eerily compelling, that lead us ever deeper into the stark dream state.
The ballet's main character is the Poet, who first appears as a bullfighter, haughty in his purity, cold in his innocence. Clad in white with a gleaming white satin cape, he struts and preens so arrogantly that when he's confronted by the Bull, we're half inclined to root for the beast. The Bull is in human form, wearing an S&M-style leather harness of a costume. His lunges are disdainfully dispatched by the bullfighter, who scarcely seems engaged by the brutish flirtation. At one point, all sound ceases, save for the heavy breathing of the winded animal. In that instant of vulnerable intimacy, the theater disappears and the stage seems to shrink to contain only the onlooker, the aloof Poet/bullfighter and this laboring Bull.
Inevitably, the bullfighter is gored, held aloft like a ballerina on the Bull's horns; it's almost as though he's killed because he didn't take death and passion seriously enough. And suddenly, our sympathy shifts back from the animal to the human. While in the real-life tale of Lorca, it's easy enough to identify the heroes and villains, in Cruel Garden, good and evil are not so easily segregated. Like Lorca's poetry, the ballet is an exploration of the tension of opposites, the intermeshed quality of sex and death, male and female, evil and light. The ballet's title itself expresses this tension, referring to a drawing by Jean Cocteau of a bull being gored by flower-bedecked banderillas.
Once crucified by the Bull, the Poet is resurrected by four mourners, and from there, with the internal logic of a dream, he goes on a surrealist odyssey of self-discovery, transmogrifying into a gypsy, a sophisticate, a bride, even Buster Keaton.
The stark otherworldly mood is broken with a gypsy episode in the Caf de Chinitas, presided over by mezzo-soprano Isabelle Ganz, who sings in the tradition of cante jondo, or "deep song," the folk music of Andalusia notable for its intensely emotional explorations of pain, suffering, love and death.
As the dream continues, the Poet enters the tableau of Blood Wedding, Lorca's most widely known play, based on a true crime story of an Andalusian bride who, on her wedding day, was seduced away from her groom by a former lover. Cruel Garden's hypnotic telling of the tale is done through mime, with harlequin sprites, puppet masks and a manic children's chorus. The puppet Bride -- the ballet's strongest image -- is poignant as she's bewitched drunkenly into the inescapable arms of her seducer.
But death and passion explode, and the Poet finds himself in America, as represented by The Afternoon Stroll of Buster Keaton, a 1926 surrealist mini-drama by Lorca, read here in English, in which the melancholy comedian portrays Lorca's self-conscious inability to deal with the brazen modern world. America further manifests itself in a vaudeville blues dancer, then a torturous dance marathon, the exhausted dancers writhing across the floor like figures stricken with the plague.
The major misstep in this production is the melodramatic Inquisitor, a tall, bald figure in a Gestapo getup with beady green penlights for eyes that gives him the appearance of someone who's wandered in from Star Wars. Unlike most of Cruel Garden's imagery, the Inquisitor doesn't resonate. He just moves about ominously, lurking here and smirking there as peasants shrink before him. His one redeeming characteristic is that he's led about by the blithe Moon -- a favorite symbol of Lorca's -- who, in his innocent amorality, seems like both lapdog and boyish sexual object to the towering Inquisitor.
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On opening night, Karl Vakili brought a likable adroitness to the taxing role of the Poet. As demanding as the role is physically, it's even more exacting because of its range of characterizations, from the bullfighter, face dispassionate above a body amazingly fluid and alive, to the Bride, disjointed yet beguiling, to the flatfooted, deadpan, all-too-human Buster Keaton. To play the part of the Bull, former Ballet principal Mark Arvin returns as a guest performer; he renders well the complex and seductively multifaceted aspects of his role, even as he triumphantly glories in its muscular machismo. Isabelle Ganz brings a riveting stage presence as the proprietress of the Cafe de Chinitas.
What makes the whole experience possible is Carlos Miranda's fabulous score, which borrows from Spanish folk songs, Moorish influences, medieval madrigals and many other sources -- all combined into a haunting, lingering whole that seeps into the corners of the evening.
Cruel Garden transfixes like a dream and stays to haunt you the next day like a dream. But as with most dreams, one awakes from the ballet a little vague on what one has experienced. It seems too short, or somehow incomplete. The images of dreams seduce and transport, but to be ultimately effective, a dream must be able to connect with waking life; perhaps a little more narrative spine would have supplied that bridge. Still, that's a minor point. For sheer experience, Cruel Garden remains one of the most beautifully compelling works in the Houston Ballet's repertoire.
Cruel Garden will play through March 3 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas. 227-