All About My Ham
Gareth Johnston speaks to Carlos Pons Guerra ahead of the second national tour of his triple bill for DeNada, Ham and Passion
Has the Ham and Passion triple bill evolved at all since it first premiered in 2015?
I think so- mainly because we have an almost new cast, and that always adds something new to the work. The three pieces are very intimate and I like to work with dancers individually to bring out the character in them, so that always adds new nuances and interpretations. They bring their own backgrounds, in terms of bodies, training and the repertoire they have danced before, and of course their own life experiences and their views on gender and sexuality. For me, my works are never quite finished- they are like open books in which you keep writing, so every time I approach them again, something changes and develops. That’s how I think choreography should be. My dancers will probably tell you they find that a bit annoying, as things keep changing- but I don’t think we should be complacent, and pieces grow like live organisms, we have to let that happen.
What sort of audience reaction have you experienced from the performance of these three pieces?
So far we’ve had really great reactions- we have been very fortunate and many people have taken to our ham and our passion. People seem to find it quite a comical, engaging and reflective show- they like that it provokes and pushes buttons, and nobody seems overly shocked! Some poignant comments came from an audience member in Bradford, who loved the work but was so upset- in the programme notes, I write about how the show is inspired by my experiences of growing up in homophobic Spain. She was upset that the world is such that I felt the need to make this show, and that so many gay people have to go through such terrible situations. It was of course hard to hear, but it also made me feel we had succeeded in making a comment on homophobic societies through a darkly comical show. We did get hate mail from an audience member in Birmingham once, who really disliked the show as he thought, and I quote, that “the British could not relate to a leg of ham, as they are not part of our cuisine and we do not know how to slice them.” He continued- “Lidl and Aldi have began selling hams, but they aren’t too successful”. He also seemed offended that so much of the music was Spanish and Latin, and stated he would never watch us again. We of course appreciated his feedback, were left in no doubt about where he stood in the Brexit vote, and were encouraged to continue defending gastronomic and cultural diversity, as well as gender and sexual equality.
Have you taken Ham & Passion to Spain at all? Or Gran Canaria?
Ham and Passion has not been in Spain as a triple bill, but two of the works have been performed in Spain independently. Funnily, we’ve performed the work in two of Spain’s major city- Madrid and Barcelona. In Madrid we had a very strange reception- the work we took was Young Man!, a lusty duel of seduction between two macho men, performed by two women and a ham. Partly because we were programmed together with a lot of very traditional flamenco, and partly because the audience was more mature, it was a very strange reception- many of the comments were about not having to show that side of Spanish history and culture so bluntly or explicitly. It made me think that there are still many wounds in Spanish society regarding its past- many people don’t want to look back, and much less see it onstage, and prefer abstract work that doesn’t engage with our not so distant, and quite bleak past of fascism, repression and strict Catholicism. Afterwards, the company was at a nightclub in Madrid’s gay district, Chueca, and we had a gay teenager come up to thank us for bringing the work, because he had never seen work that addressed the issues he was going through. That in itself made the trip worthwile.
In Barcelona we had a very different reaction- we took our solo about a drag queen who murders a Fascist soldier, Passionaria, as well Young Man!. The reaction was great- both works were performed outdoors, and we had rows of people, of all ages, but poignantly including rows of older ladies, who were all singing along to our songs, which are quite Spanish retro and they knew from films and the radio, and they absolutely loved it. At the end of the duet, a gypsy man came to the side of the stage- I almost had a heart attack from the tech box- and he started singing the lost song, with a beautiful, soulful voice, as the sun set. It was spectacular, it looked as if I’d staged it but it happened completely by chance! Over the next few days people would recognize us in the local bakeries and bars and congratulate us- it was such a difference!
I guess it really highlighted the existing divide in mentality, politics and culture between Cataluña and Madrid. Cataluña was were all experimentation in theatre, dance and the arts started in Spain, through its proximity to France. In my view it is a generally much more cultured region, much more avant-garde. It also tends towards the left more, and is much more interested in exploring its identity. Ham and Passion, amongst other things, explore Hispanic identity, questioning and subverting what we believe is Spanish, and I think Cataluña, because of its history, is much more eager to do that, and is accepting of it, than Madrid.
We haven’t had the chance to perform in the Canary Islands yet, although we have tried! It really would be a dream for me as I’ve never been able to share my work at home, but it is a small place sadly, they seem to be much more interested in supporting anything foreign, whatever the quality, than in nurturing home talent. I hope that changes soon.
Have your family seen Ham & Passion? Are they comfortable with the religious elements of the work?
My parents haven’t seen Ham and Passion, no, but they have decided to come to London to see this tour’s premiere! It is very special for me as they have never seen my work and they weren’t always happy about me being a dancer, and of course, I am very worried about what they will think of not only the religious elements, but also the historical and sexual content of the bill- I’m quite scared, actually! Going back to the previous question, I do think that a large part of Spanish people want to move on from our past and pretend it didn’t happen, so my father, who is now very supportive in his way, keeps suggesting I make work that leaves the Church alone, that isn’t about the Civil War, nuns or the dictatorship, and make ‘something modern’, with ‘modern music and costumes’. I think he thinks that if he comes to watch Ham and Passion, I’ll stop making this kind of work, like I’m an angry teenager making a point to my parents. I think it’s very funny and all the reason to continue in this line of work. But yes, I am a little bit concerned and nervous- it’s funny how parents can suddenly become scarier than the most renowned critic- and maybe you should ask me this question again in two weeks, by which time I hope not to have been disowned!
Where are you currently drawing inspiration and influences from?
At the moment, a whole range of sources- I’ve been very lucky and have been working on a few commissions over the last few months. I am currently creating a short work for Northern Ballet, as part of Sadler’s Wells/The Lowry’s Dance:Sampled, and this is an all-female work inspired by Jean Genet’s The Maids, where I’m exploring a darker side of femininity than we normally see in classical ballet, as well as our relationships and struggles with power and submission, which seem very relevant themes in today’s climate! I also created a work for Verve, the young professional company at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, and this was inspired by a Spanish TV reality show, I Want to Be a Nun and Jeffrey Euginides’ novel, The Virgin Suicides, which is another slightly comical work about repression, and not being able to unleash the passion and sexuality that come with youth- all the dancers are strapped in pseudo-nun habits and I took a lot of inspiration from nunsploitation films and literature, like The Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentines and Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon.
Aside from that, and looking towards the future, I had some time off in Christmas and read a lot of Angela Carter- some of her most famous stuff, like The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus, but also things like The Passion of New Eve, and I have all sorts of ideas running through my head, particularly to do with monstrous masculinity and fantasy/science fiction, which is where our world suddenly seems to be heading…
You were recently commissioned by Rambert to create a piece – Ruffle, inspired by the cock fights of the Canary Islands. How was that received?
I created Ruffle almost two years ago and I was very happy with how it was received. It is a male duet inspired, as you say, by cock fights in the Canaries, South America, and as I discovered through research, Asia. Since being performed at The Lowry and Rambert, it has gone on to be performed at several outdoor festivals, including at The National Theatre and Wilderness Festival, and we have had some invitations to perform it abroad over the next year, which is fantastic. What I was really happy with, with Ruffle, was that although it is clearly about a relationship between men, many people did not read it as a queer work- but rather, many heterosexual audience members felt very identified with it. Both dancers are wearing what looks like pyjamas- pants, t-shirts: the idea is to show that moment when our bedrooms can become cockpits of fighting rings. So everybody related to that bickering, biting, ruffling of feathers that we have in relationships, when you love the person but at times you could easily strangle them- that happens to everybody, whatever your sexual orientation. And that is great, because I was tired of having to see heterosexual relationships onstage as references- I think it’s time we can stage homosexual relationships and read universal themes in them, and that they don’t exclusively speak to queer audiences. That is something I’m very interested in developing.