As if the earth swallows you inside its guts, the roar of the drums expand solemnly across a huge hall. At once, nine dancers attired in bulky skirts and a Handmaid’s Tale-style bonnet slide apace across the white marble floor. Archaic and visceral, the first minutes of Marcos Morau’s Sonoma drag you into the telluric universe of the Calanda drums, a tradition from the hometown of Spanish filmmaker Luís Buñuel. Premiered at Barcelona’s Grec Festival in July 2020 at the Sala Oval of the National Museum of Art of Catalonia (MNAC), Sonoma reprises some ideas from Morau’s earlier piece Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution, created in 2016 on Ballet de Lorraine and inspired by Buñuel’s art and life.
Unlike most choreographers, Marcos Morau (Valencia, 1982) is not a trained dancer; instead he jumped into the world of dance because he wanted to choreograph. In partnership with a group of artist friends, he set up his company La Veronal in 2005 (named after the drug Virginia Woolf took on her first suicide attempt) to create dance works using expressive tools from other artistic fields such as cinema, literature, photography and visual arts. His talent started to be noticed with Russia (2011) and Siena (2013) and when he was only 32 years old he received the National Dance Award from the Spanish Ministry of Culture. Besides his work with La Veronal, he has been invited to work with prestigious dance companies across the world such as the National Dance Company of Spain, Scapino Ballet Rotterdam, Skånes Dansteater, the Royal Danish Ballet and Ballet de Lorraine.
Since I first met Morau – we were both studying for a master’s degree at Institut del Teatre in 2008 – what has fascinated me most about him and his company was their imagery, exuberant and full of flavoursome cultural references. Sonoma is no exception. The stunning images still echo in my head when I meet Morau in a café in Barcelona some days after the premiere and just before he takes a train to Madrid to teach a workshop at the Ballet de España. During an hour we chat about how the lockdown affected him, the production, his approach to Buñuel and surrealism, and what could Sonoma be about.
The lockdown that started in mid-March caught Morau in the midst of a hectic and productive season: in January he had been working at Teatro Real de Madrid for an opera, and in February he had premiered Carnival of the Animals with Skånes Dansteater in Sweden. ‘At the beginning, the idea of staying at home felt like a sort of relief, but after two weeks I realised that I missed the stress and sharing snacks with Lorena [Nogal, one of the dancers and choreographic assistants] at the airports, the meetings with the technical team, rehearsals with dancers. These feelings made me feel a victim of hyperproduction.’ [In 2019 Morau completed five productions and in 2020, three.] ‘After the confinement I jumped into the rehearsals like a cat in heat!’ he blurts out – then chuckles, teasing me not to include this in the interview. La Veronal produced the piece in one stint of less than three months. Balancing the pros and cons of the situation, Morau says: ‘On the bright side, the dancers and the rest of the team worked with an extraordinary intensity and eagerness, however I really missed the slow burn.’
Throughout the confinement, Morau was in constant touch with the backbone of La Veronal: dramaturgs Carmina Sanchis, Celso Giménez (La Tristura) and Pablo Gisbert (El Conde de Torrefiel), who also happen to be childhood friends and collaborators with the company since its inception. For Sonoma, they adapted a long list of beatitudes (blessings) written for Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution, and shaped a new dramaturgy. With Sonoma, Morau travels back to his own roots and childhood memories while exploring Buñuel’s universe.
Sonoma is infused by the world of Luís Buñuel, one of the leading figures in Surrealism. As a Spanish artist, Morau believes the filmmaker to be a definitive reference, not only for the way he composed, narrated and edited films, but for his ethics and thinking. ‘I have a lot in common with him: a deeply Catholic upbringing,’ states Morau, who grew up in Ontinyent, a village near Valencia, and went to a colegio de curas, a Catholic school run by priests (Buñuel received a Jesuit education in a boarding school in Zaragoza). Morau may have outgrown this past, yet at the same time he wants ‘to use where I come from to understand the world in which we live in’ – in a similar way that Buñuel portrayed traditions, religious mania and delved into atavism through own his sharp wit.
It is not the first time that Morau has embraced the world of an iconic artist: first with Los Pájaros muertos on Pablo Picasso in 2009 (adapted for Scapino Ballet under the title Pablo), and later with Rothko Chapel for GöteborgOperans Danskompani (2017). ‘I never intend to explain who the artist was or what he did. I binge Buñuel and see what he does to me, and I imagine what he would be doing now.’ But when Buñuel was young and lived in the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid with Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca, he could daydream of conquering the world. ‘A century later,’ as Morau points out, ‘the world and the arts have been devoured. After all the events of the twentieth century and artists like Marina Abramović or the postmodern movement, what are we talking about in 2020? How do we face the stage? A naked body on stage looks like an anecdote. Returning to the origins is the least we can do.’
So for Morau, Buñuel has never been so current, especially after a long confinement in which we have had to stop the hasty pace of life that disconnects us from the earth. La Veronal and Morau build a concept to bond with the earth, the body and the flesh through movement and sound. Soma is an Ancient Greek word meaning body, and sonum in Latin means sound; thus, Sonoma could mean either ‘sound body’ or ‘body of sound’. Besides, Sonoma is an actual place in California, which in the indigenous language of the people of the area translates into the ‘valley of the moon’.
Morau tends to ask me what I think about particular moments of the choreography or mise-en-scène, as if trying to spot things to improve while at the same time digging into possible meanings in the piece that might have escaped him. ‘Do you think Sonoma is about gender?’ he inquires. And while I try to mumble a decent answer, he continues: ‘Have you noticed in how many paintings, or works of art like ballet, women form a mass surrounding a man? There’s this imaginary in art that women are that background noise, but they are never the word. In our tradition, while voice is a feminine thing, speech is a masculine one. I didn’t want the dancers to embody a noise, but words and speech. I wanted them to speak. So now I realise that there’s more gender in this approach than I originally conceived.’
In Sonoma, the dancers declaim a long list of beatitudes in French to pay homage to ‘all the women who have never been included in the history books, but who taught how to speak to their children,’ Morau discloses. ‘I wanted to create a community of women, who treated each other well but at the same time destroyed or bullied one of them. As individuals belonging to communities, we do not always fit. We fear rejection and therefore sometimes we feel compelled to abandon certain things to be accepted.’ Conveying this theme of community the nine dancers – Lorena Nogal, Marina Rodríguez, Sau-Ching Wong, Ariadna Montfort, Núria Navarra, Àngela Boix, Laia Duran, Anna Hierro and Alba Barral – enter the stage looking indistinguishable from one another. Designer Silvia Delagneau’s work is mesmerising: the bulky skirts, the rural patterns and the white bonnets propel the onlooker to a vague rural past with touches of Lower Aragon accent. A female rural and earthy past. The movement and the scenes are deeply embedded in the sound and rhythms inspired by traditional Aragonese by Juan Cristóbal Saavedra. The dancers incarnate an army of village women enrolling in a choreography that relies mainly on ensemble work rather than the intricate duos and trios with which the company has forged its distinctive ‘Kova’ style. From the stark solemnity of the first scene, the choreography progresses into lightless revealing the nine women as bodies of sound, bodies full of words and inner conflicts, but mainly as subjects channelling a deep and long awaited cry.
Dance, as in all of La Veronal’s productions, becomes an amalgam of dazzling images such as the glowing moon floating over the dancers or – in one of the most tender and mesmerising moments – two figures in outsize old-woman headmasks. These figures, together with the backstage elements such as travel trunks and spotlights, provide a cinematographic approach; or as Morau casually puts it: ‘as if Vogue had landed in the middle of an Aragon village for a photoshoot about jotas and they had stumbled upon these grannies.’ Later, he utters with gravitas: ‘These kinds of contrasting images that connect with the primitive, divine and carnal are what Buñuel is about.’ ●
Conception & direction: Marcos Morau / Choreography: Marcos Morau, with the collaboration of the performers / Performing: Lorena Nogal, Marina Rodríguez, Sau-Ching Wong, Ariadna Montfort, Núria Navarra, Àngela Boix, Laia Duran, Anna Hierro, Alba Barral / Text: El Conde de Torrefiel, La Tristura, Carmina S. Belda / Rehearsals: Estela Merlos, Alba Barral / Dramaturgy advisor: Roberto Fratini / Vocal assistance: Mònica Almirall / Lighting & technical direction: Bernat Jansà / Stage manager, technic assistant and FX: David Pascual / Sound design: Juan Cristóbal Saavedra / Voice: María Pardo / Set: Bernat Jansà, David Pascual / Costume design: Silvia Delagneau / Confection: Mª Carmen Soriano / Hats: Nina Pawlowsky / Masks: Juan Serrano, Gadget Efectos Especiales Giant: Martí Doy Atrezzo: Mirko Zeni / Production assistant: Cristina Goñi Adot / Executive production: Juan Manuel Gil Galindo Photography: Marina Rodríguez
A 2020 Barcelona Grec Festival – Institut de Cultura Ajuntament de Barcelona coproduction with Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, Tanz im August/HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Oriente Occidente Dance Festival, Theater Freiburg, Centro Cultural Conde Duque, Hessisches Staatsballett / Staatstheater Darmstadt & Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, Sadler’s Wells, Mercat de les Flors, Temporada Alta. With the support of the National Institute of Stage Arts and Music – Spanish Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the Catalan Institute of Cultural Enterprises – Catalan Ministry of Culture.