‘It’s in depictions of the monstrous that artists have the most freedom,’ says choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra, after a performance of his work TORO: Beauty and the Bull at Sadler’s Wells on April 25th. TORO inhabits a vulnerable zone where the human meets the animal; the staged meets the authentic. Danced by Marivi Da Silva, the Bull is a male animal in a feminised body. Hair drawn back in a reed-slim ponytail, breasts restricted by a harness, Da Silva’s bondaged torso is counterbalanced by an explosive net skirt, which gives her the surging motion of masculinity.
The Bull and spiky, translucent Emma Louise Walker, who is cast as a configuration of Beauty/ Girl/ Prostitute, are preyed upon by alpha males who seek to conquer and depreciate them. The men – crotch-potent stereotypes – are both lusty and automatic. They gyrate, violate and suppress; they get carried away; crow like the cocks they are. The animal realm is never far away, even for these would-be standard-setters; in the second act, the same dancers are cast as voguing dragimals, harnessed at the face and mouth, their arms wind-frittered wings.
The dance piece’s narrative is inspired by the 18th century French fairytale Beauty and the Beast. However, it’s the fairytale as Pons Guerra has read and dreamt it. Growing into a gay man in Spain, the thirty-year-old choreographer was often made to feel monstrous for his preferences. In his interpretation of the classic fairytale, he identifies both with the Bull and the prostituted Beauty, who is subdued by a sexualisation that’s forced upon her.
Pons Guerra wouldn’t be the first gay male thespian to explore his own experience through the feminine – Tennessee Williams, author of A Streetcar Named Desire, claimed that his heroine Blanche DuBois was him in drag. And yet, when a woman in the audience, who couldn’t help but see Walker’s Beauty as a representative of her own sex, asked about what she truly wants, Pons Guerra admitted himself clueless as Freud. ‘I don’t know much about female sexuality,’ he said with a laugh.
While Beauty’s body has been scripted according to Pons Guerra’s narrative, or at a distance, the original fabulist, Madame de Villeneuve’s; in its passive, feeling state, it is open to as many interpretations as there are viewers. At the beginning of the performance, Beauty is supine, legs apart, in a pose my yoga teacher would call dragonfly. Superficially it’s a receptive stance, open to the gaze of the audience who are still arriving; however, her eyes are closed. She’s asleep; in denial, even as the men pulse about various parts of the body.
It’s easy to read Beauty’s initial sleep, her writhing around, awakening with an ambiguously gendered Bull as non-heteronormative sexual awakening. She’s repulsed by the marital straightjacket that awaits her in the Second Act. The bridal gown is wispy chiffon, but as it alights on her shoulders, it may as well be deadly nightshade.
There’s more to Pons Guerra’s interpretation than explorations of sexuality. As a child Pons Guerra was sent to bed on a diet of bedtime stories where the beasts had non-white features; perhaps those from the Spanish colonies in South America. To Pons Guerra’s richly storied mind, the alpha males are conquistadores and map makers, uncomfortable with ambiguity. A strident brass score highlights their sense of entitlement, gilds their violent struggles. Like a colonised subject, the Bull is an entity they can never fully understand, define or control.
Still, any sense of a linear narrative or morality in Pons Guerra’s work splinters into an erotic carnival of animal movement. It asks us as viewers to define the beautiful and the monstrous for ourselves and then, on a deeper level, to ask whether we have the right or the capacity to distinguish between the two.