Caribbean Butterflies

Carlos Pons Guerra speaks to Gareth Johnson about the inspiration behind Mariposa, his new full length ballet for DeNada Dance Theatre 

Sept. 2016

When did you first see Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly?

 The first time I heard about the opera was through my grandmother, Amalia, who told me the story when I was a kid- we used to spend a lot of time together and she would take me to watch many operas back home in Gran Canaria. My grandmother could be very dramatic and she told the story very well. The first time I saw a production was in Gran Canaria, where we have an amazing opera festival- but I have since seen it many times. I particularly like English National Opera’s and New York’s Metropolitan Opera’s versions.

What other adaptations of Madame Butterfly have you seen or admired?

Photo: Joe Armitage

Photo: Joe Armitage

I really enjoyed David Nixon’s version for Northern Ballet, which was one the seeds planted in my brain which led me to create Mariposa. His version follows the original story and setting, but I thought that his choreography, particularly for Butterfly’s final scenes, is very visceral and raw, and I loved how he introduced live Japanese music into the ballet. I of course also love Miss Saigon, which has been one of my favourite musicals since I was ten (I had a very melodramatic childhood, it seems!). While I was researching this production, a friend suggested I watched M Butterfly, a film version of a play by David Wright Hwang, starring Jeremy Irons. I don’t think the film is great but the storyline- involving a transvestite Chinese Communist spy- had a very interesting subtext based on gender identity and cultural politics, which are both themes I’m very interested in. 

 What attracted you to this story?

I think the main thing is that it is a good meaty drama, and I think that that is exactly what a good dance work needs- a great conflict. I think Butterfly’s story of betrayal and cultural difference is very relatable, perhaps because at a much less dramatic extent, as a foreigner I have also experienced cultural and heritage differences as a Spaniard living in the UK. Butterfly gives up everything- her family, religion and honour- to be accepted by the man she loves. I think that as gay men we have all experienced that in some form. Growing up, we tend to face rejection from society, family, school kids- so when we find somebody that loves us, we are willing to change and sacrifice whatever it takes to be finally accepted. I think many of us have felt we have to change major aspects about ourselves to be accepted by our partners- whether that is to act more butch so our partners don’t think we are camp, to party more so that our gay friends accept us, to spend six hours at the gym to achieve a particular body type. Sadly, these changes are sometimes not enough for our partners, friends or families- and we can be betrayed or our efforts have been in vain. My Butterfly perhaps goes to an extreme in his sacrifice- he changes sex, an irreversible change, although he is happy in his male body- so that Pinkerton will marry her.  But I think that we have all faced such decisions- whether gay or straight- having to decide whether to make a huge change for somebody. So although I am creating a story that is very clearly between two men, I think that the notion of having to change to be accepted, the sacrifices this involves, and the never ending hope of being loved- which to me are the core messages in Madame Butterfly- are universal themes all audiences can relate to.

  What was your process for creating a dance adaptation of the story?

It all started several years ago. I watched a Channel 4 documentary about the lady boys of Bangkok, which followed the story of several men who were in the process of gender reassignment. I was particularly shocked by the case of a Thai lady boy who had a British male partner, who had convinced him to have the full gender reassignment operation. The boy was going through some rough times due to the hormone therapy and the effects this change would bring, yet his partner was being very rude, patronizing and nasty towards him-  for instance, cruelly laughing to the camera at the mood changes the hormone treatment was causing. This case stuck with me and I couldn’t forget about their story. After deciding to work on a version of Madame Butterfly, I remembered their case and started developing a scenario based on sacrificing your gender for somebody whose love and intentions weren’t reciprocal.

 You’ve written that your interpretation of this story as influenced by your time in the Dominican Republic – how did that experience lead you to setting the story in Cuba with the characters a Caribbean rent boy and an American sailor?

Photo: Joe Armitage

Photo: Joe Armitage

I didn’t feel I could relate to the Japanese themes and setting of the original work, and much less with the conflict between Oriental and Western cultures- I have never been to Japan and although I have a big interest, I haven’t experienced its culture. So I didn’t want to set my story there. When I was researching in the DR, I had several meetings with a local film director called Juanjo Cid, who is filming a documentary about a famous illegal drag bar in 80’s Santo Domingo- The Penthouse. It was a sorority of drag queens and trans women who created a community for themselves and would throw huge performances and parties, but were also very socially conscious and were the first to set up a support group for men dying with AIDS, at a time when Dominicans would not even accept them in hospitals. Whilst there, I was also taken aback by the amount of male prostitutes found in the city, and began researching their lives and behavior- no field work involved, other than observing them in bars and streets!- and their pack-like, hunter behaviour inspired me when thinking about this work. So I decided to set this version in the Caribbean, a very sexual yet very morally strict environment, and continued researching male prostitution and the lives of trans people in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, the Hispanic Caribbean.

  Hispanic/Latin machismo, sexuality and religion are themes that seem to run through much of your work. How does Mariposa connect with previous pieces that you’ve created?

Photo by Joe Armitage

Photo by Joe Armitage

Mariposa continues my investigation of how we can design our gender, and of how our sexuality and gender can have huge consequences on how we are viewed and treated. The relationship between Butterfly and Pinkerton is a sexually aggressive, destructive but ultimately loving one, and I think with that it continues to express the power politics in relationships which I am interested in. The cultural and artistic pastiche is also there, and I hope my many sources of inspiration, the worlds I like to inhabit artistically- in this case, Jean Genet, Almodovar, Tom Spanbauer, ballet archetypes- are also there too.

 I use Hispanic machismo, and homosexual/ transgender themes in this and my other works because they are the place I come from, the culture and family I belong to. But ultimately what I try to do is created work that everybody can relate to. I am tired of, as gay man, being asked to constantly relate to heterosexual archetypes. We are expected to see ourselves in Romeo and Juliet, and if you create a work about two men, it is classified as queer work and supposed to be for a queer audience. Why? Do we think Romeo and Juliet is a straight work, only for straight audiences? During one of the work in progress sharings, a heterosexual female audience member, without knowing my libretto, commented on a brothel scene where Butterfly is visited and degraded by several male sex pests. For her, the scene spoke about the many relationships you have in life, and how they can erode you until you are left on the ground, the imprint they leave in you. I was very happy that she didn’t see a comment solely on gay life there- but rather, she thought of her own relationships with men and how they had chiseled her. That’s the kind of reflection I want from my audience, and because of who I am and where I come from, I do that through themes of Hispanic machismo and homosexuality.

DeNada Dance Theatre will premiere Carlos Pons Guerra’s Mariposa: a Transgender Tragedy Inspired by Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, in March 2020, prior to a UK national tour.

Carlos Pons