Look what they’ve done to flamenco, Ma

by Dallis Radamaker, Netherlands UU Fellowship

So last night after dinner, Diana and I decided to go for a walk in the cool of the evening and headed for a beautiful spot we particularly love in front of the main entrance to the Palace of the Popes. The “Cour d’Honneur” of this magnificent palace is the chief venue for the performances of the annual Avignon Arts Festival. As we arrived, a large crowd was assembling for an eight o’clock performance, and I noticed a man walking along holding up two tickets he evidently had for sale. This excited me, even though I had no idea what was on.

At this point I should explain that there are really two Avignon Arts Festivals. There is the chic, prestigious and expensive official festival; but next to that there is a popular, shabby street festival with jugglers; sword swallowers; fire eaters; human statues; mimes and every sort of theatrical performance you can imagine. Diana and I have come every Summer for the past five years for the shabby version. The tickets being waved in front of my nose now were for the chic affair. Suddenly, I wanted them. I asked their owner what his tickets were for, and he affirmed they were for the performance just about to begin in the palace and that it was some sort of contemporary dance. Diana said, “Oh, too bad, I don’t like contemporary dance.” My face fell. If the truth be known, I don’t care much for contemporary dance either, though I have seen things I liked. But I wanted to get into the Papal Palace and be part of the excitement of the “real” Avignon Festival. So I did a kind of intense, high speed mope to let Diana know I was unhappy with her response, and a few minutes later we were standing in a long line clutching tickets that only cost about 35 USD a piece because the seats were in the stratosphere, but I was happy anyway because I was going to a real performance at the Avignon Festival. Reading the brochure pushed into my hand by the ticket taker, I learned that we were going to see “La Fiesta,” a dance by Israel Galvan, a dancer from Seville in the flamenco tradition. Diana bravely said, “It may be wonderful”. Meanwhile we ascended into the heavens and found our seats.

I feel that no words will be adequate to describe the following hour and a half. I will try, but I have my limits. It’s really a shame Diana called me to bed last night before I could at least get a good start, since I find the memory already fading, as is usual with nightmares. Anyway, the house was packed and we peered down from our eagle’s nest on five low wooden platforms. A bald fat man in an orange pullover and a short, fat woman in a flowered dress emerged from offstage, sat down next to one another on one of the platforms and began making hideous noises. Very loud hideous noises. At first they sounded something like “Op, op, op… ap, ap ap… op, op, op”. It turned out that the orange pullover guy was specialized in hideous noises. They changed their rhythm and sonority as the evening progressed but never died completely until he did (revealing his death to you in this way is technically a “spoiler” but I feel that my sin is small compared to the suffering I endured collecting this information for you, so you should forgive me). So the orange pullover guy starts with the hideous “Op op op, ap ap ap,” and two tall young guys in green and white track suits follow one another slowly onto the stage clapping loudly along with the op ops and the ap aps. Suddenly, the principal dancer appears. He is a hairy fellow with a bun on top of his head, a black muscle shirt and black boots – one boot rising to just above the knee, the other stopping at the ankle (I’ll bet he has another pair just like them at home). He seems crippled at this point, but maybe there is some arty-farty reason he is not allowed to dance on his legs. Instead, he swims around the stage like a baby learning to crawl but who can’t do it yet. A little later he lies on his back for a while and kicks his arms and legs in no apparent relation to the rhythm of the hideous noises. Then for a while, he does the same while lying on one side. At one point, I seem to recall, he got up and walked around the stage on his knees, which I thought must have hurt, but which inspired no loftier feelings in me of the kind we like to associate with Art (note the capital “A”). Remember we are at the Avignon Arts Festival, where you use the capital “A” in this context, if you are going to use it anywhere.

In the meantime, a lot of other surprising things had been happening on stage, none of them particularly agreeable. I can remember a few of them but can’t be relied upon to write them down here in their correct order. I don’t believe it matters anyway. There is a beautiful young woman in the troupe with a lovely voice who probably could sing pretty well if her employer would let her. As it was, she was only occasionally allowed to approach a microphone and lay down a pleasant blues line under the prevailing cacophony. Other times she contributed something that sounded like a Gregorian chant. But any hope these brief moments may have awakened, quickly died. It may have been this same young woman who came on stage a couple of times sitting on a sort of wheeled stool and pushed herself to and fro on it. She was sexy, or at least I had hopes for her, but her bits never lasted very long and the stage was poorly illuminated, so her sexiness may be just a figment of my starved imagination, desperate for something to be interested in among the bizarre offerings running around on the stage in front of me.

I know most of you will have stopped reading by now, which is not surprising because my long description has only gotten to about the middle of the performance, which must be as discouraging to you, dear reader, as it was to many of the people attending the actual performance, who began leaving in little groups of two or three. There was a recognizable shape to this middle section of the piece, which began with the appearance of Mr. Pumpkinhead, a dancer with a pumpkin on his head, and lasted for hours and hours and hours and hours and – well, it lasted for quite a long time, and it seemed to last for quite a bit longer than that. Shortly after the appearance on stage of Mr. Pumpkinhead, the alert modern dance enthusiast would have noticed that the bald fat guy with the orange pullover (hereinafter the “BFG-OP”) suddenly also had a pumpkin on his head, though he didn’t do very much with it. The first pumpkin-head guy, on the other hand, swooped and swayed around the stage while sometimes tapping rhythmically on his own pumpkin and sometimes tapping rhythmically on the pumpkin of the BFG-OP.

After this had gone on for quite a while, the really bad thing happened. The pumpkin-headed dancer reached out and seized and lifted the pumpkin from the head of the BFG-OP, which was the sign for the said BFG-OP, who you will remember from an earlier page was also the guy principally in charge of producing ugly noises for this performance, to start producing the most ugly noises you have ever heard in your life at a volume simply not to be believed. This went on for a long time causing about a tenth of the audience to stand up and flee to places out of earshot of the stage of the Papal Palace, while a significant part of those remaining expressed a growing impatience with the awful noise assaulting them by jumping up and down on the tribune steps. A few catcalls were also heard at this point, but at length the BFG-OP was dead, or at least, stopped making ugly noises and lay still. About this time Diana indicated by tugging on my ear that her patience was exhausted and that she wanted to join the flood of dance refugees. I, on the other hand, thinking of the fun I was going to have writing this report later, told Diana that I was having the time of my life and could not be gotten out of there with a gun. Naturally this was disappointing to her, but she loves me and is used to my peculiarities, so she smiled and subsided.

Me, Diana and some thousands more hardened modern dance enthusiasts still remaining in our seats after all the faint-hearted had fled, were then able to enjoy the third and closing section of the piece, which was dominated by the muscle-shirted variably booted dancer who did the strange swimming and floor-spinning in the first part. He now stood up on his two legs and put his arms in that recognizable male flamenco-dancer position that resembles the posture of a banderillero at a Spanish bullfight when he is just about to thrust a couple of banderillas into the bull, and did the wakka wakka heel thing, all of which showed that he could dance after all, but was less interesting than it might have been because the beautiful but haughty woman resplendent in red silk, mantillas and castenets for whose benefit all this male primping is normally done, was totally absent from the scene. Or was she? Turned out she wasn’t. Turned out somebody had tied her up and stuffed her away in the crawlspace under the dancing platform. This was revealed to the astonished audience when two dancers on-stage lifted the dancing platform up and set it on its edge with the former underside facing the audience, who could then see where and how this lovely woman had been imprisoned all that time. I thought the poor thing must be deaf now, after lying underneath the floor on which the muscle-shirted, variably-booted guy had been doing the wakka wakka heel thing without her visible participation for a long time. I hoped for a few moments that her release from prison was going to be the sign for her to join the muscle shirted one on stage and reward us for our long patience by a finale in which she would clack her castenets menacingly just short of his nose; the two would dance alternately seductive and defiant circles around one another and respond to each other’s wakka wakka heel clacking with more wakka wakka heel clacking, finally sending us all home with our heads full of pleasant sexual fantasies involving lithe latin beauties and their castenets.

Didn’t happen, my friends. Didn’t happen. Instead, the woman dancer, wearing the classic explosion of red silk, freed from her fetters, sashayed across the stage to where the BFG-OP, who seemed to have forgotten that he died in the middle section, was standing, and taking up a position behind him, began to mechanically and repeatedly kick him in the ass (which seemed perfectly justified, given everything that had gone before, but still an inadequate use of her dance potential, I thought) while the muscle-shirted, variably booted guy carried on all alone like a maniac, tossing himself around the stage and clacking his heels like there was no tomorrow, but with no dancer opposite him to be seduced or otherwise interested in all his fine male prancing.

Talk about art for art’s sake!

And so to bed.

Goodnight friends, from Avignon, the cultural capital of the world.