At 15, she left behind her family home in Seville and moved to Madrid. A year later, she was touring to Japan – and by the age of 25 she was ready to start her own dance company. If there’s one thing Maria Pagés isn’t short of, it’s courage.
When it came to her latest production, however – a flamenco re-imagining of Prosper Mérimée’s 19th century novella and Georges Bizet’s opera, Carmen – she needed a few more years under her belt.
Created in 2014, when Pagés was 50, Yo, Carmen is a coming together of flamenco dance, music and song, fused with poetry and theatre. About to play the Edinburgh International Festival, the show was a long time coming.
“Yo, Carmen is not really the story of Carmen, it was a way to give a voice to women,” explains Pagés. “And I’ve waited a long time to do this – this show is the result of a lot of reflection all through my life. But eventually, I felt strong, experienced and mature enough to reflect on this character.”
Growing up in Andalusia, the character of Carmen – usually depicted as an exotic gypsy who leads men astray – has been present in Pagés life for as long as she can remember. And for just as long, she has felt unhappy with how women were portrayed by Mérimée and Bizet.
“If you are from Seville, the idea of Carmen is all around you from the time you are born,” she says. “Because she is very strong personality and a very popular topic, especially if you are a female flamenco dancer. But I always had a resistance to this depiction – because of course, all Andalusian women are not like Carmen.
“I think the novel is very misogynistic, it’s really a stereotype of women. Carmen is the invention of a man – the character is not the voice of a woman, it’s the voice of a man who imagined how he would like that woman to be.”
Performed by eight dancers and seven musicians, Yo, Carmen borrows aspects of Bizet’s score, but fuses them with some of the traditional songs that inspired the opera. And although Pagés herself dances in the show, neither she nor any of the other women on stage play the character of Carmen specifically.
“When I say, ‘Yo, Carmen’, which means ‘I, Carmen’, it’s actually a collective, it’s not just me,” she explains. “We are all Carmen, we are women who work, who are mothers, who teach, who run the family, who are very strong but at the same time very fragile – real women. It’s not the idea of only one character – for me this ‘Yo’ is you, it’s me, it’s my mother, your sister.”
Critics and audiences alike have been effusive in their praise for Pagés, not only her ability to tackle important subjects, but for the power and passion of her movement. When she’s on stage, it’s not just Pagés the performer we meet, but Pagés the woman.
“When I talk about this show, people say oh, Maria Pagés, she’s very feminist,” she says. “And of course I’m a feminist, in the way I believe feminism to be, which is the desire for women to be in the same position as men in our society. And I think that’s not only about women – it’s about men, too, because we need everybody to work together so we can all be equal.”
The person Pagés worked with most on this show is indeed a man – her husband, director, poet and dramaturgist El Arbi El Harti. The couple work closely on all Pagés’s creations – “it’s a family company” – which for Yo, Carmen included sourcing poems from around the world to inspire and include in the production.
“For Yo, Carmen we found many female voices from different cultures and languages,” she says, “including Akiko Yosano who is a fantastic Japanese poet, Marguerite Yourcenar, Margaret Atwood, María Zambrano, Belén Reyes and others. We’ll include some of the poems in the show, the rest will be written down so people can read them. But it’s funny – the message in all their work is very similar.”
The inclusion of poetry in her dances is par for the course for Pagés (“the soul of flamenco is always poetry,” she says) but so too is taking flamenco in new and unexpected directions. Throughout her career, she has been deemed a pioneer for the genre, respecting the Andalusian traditions she grew up with but always seeking new ways to explore the dance she loves.
Even when Pagés joined the Riverdance team in 1995 as a guest artist, it was purely because she wanted to see how flamenco dance and Irish music could come together. “I remember at the very beginning, talking to the composer Bill Whelan,” she recalls. “And at that time I was very curious about how flamenco could be danced to other music – and he arrived at just the right time. So I decided to try dancing to Irish music with all those fantastic musicians. I signed my first contract for six weeks – and they’re still dancing it now.”
It’s a spirit of exploration and acceptance of other artforms and styles that Pagés feels is totally in keeping with flamenco itself.
“Flamenco is very flexible and can take in lots of different influences,” she says, “because it’s already a melange of many cultures. It was born in a place where many communities and cultures come together: Arab, Jewish, Gypsies, Christians and Africans – flamenco is the result of all of that.
“And because flamenco was born in the marginal places, it has more solidarity and is more flexible to including others. It’s a popular art, so it needs to keep the traditional side to survive, but at the same time it’s always open to acquiring new things.”