The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco

Ng Yi-Sheng

August 28, 2016

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I had some misgivings about this show’s premise. Why stage a biographical play about this one white (or white-passing) dude? He’s neither dead, nor is he a core figure in the development of local or regional theatre. Why put him on a pedestal?

And whaddaya mean, this show is three hours long?

But now I’ve seen it, I get it. The 75 year-old flamenco dancer Antonio Vargas’s life is a story worth telling, and the fact that it’s being told as a Singaporean story does, with utter self-awareness, interrogate what it means to be a Singaporean/Singaporer.

Plus, it’s gotta be three hours long because it’s about storytelling and it’s about dance. Neither one is compromised: the cast has time to talk and time to move. And both are done very beautifully—the text is flamboyantly beautiful, in fact, with playwright Huzir Sulaiman waxing lyrical about the dramatic skies of Morocco, where Vargas was born as Aimée Honoré Azulay in 1940...

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Regarding the cast, here’s what wasn’t evident from the poster: the bulk of the show isn’t performed by Vargas himself, but by a cast of young Singaporean (and Singapore-based Malaysian) actors: Chanel Ariel Chan, Erwin Shah Ismail, Frances Lee, Oliver Pang, Thomas Pang, Seong Hui Xuan, Tan Shou Chen and Amanda Tee.

The show begins with a lesson: they’re Vargas’s students, learning the basics of flamenco from the maestro in a Geylang studio, just as they actually did during the rehearsal process. But then they begin to re-enact his life, and they play all parts: Shou Chen is baby Vargas, first discovering the joys of flamenco from his art at the age of five; Thomas is kid Vargas, training in the art in a London Jewish boarding school at ten; Oliver is teen Vargas, performing in Pilar Lopez’s dance company in Franco’s Spain…

Almost everyone plays Vargas at some point, even the women. Vargas sometimes steps into his own shoes, but mostly he looks on, amused at the retelling, interjecting when he feels additional commentary is required.

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Eventually it becomes evident that the lesson is still in progress: what we’re witnessing is a Singaporean community of actors trying to understand what it means to be an internationally successful and long-lived artist from someone’s who’s mastered the craft. Just as in dance, they learn by retracing his footsteps.

It’s not a silent lesson, either. One by one, the actors speak to us about their own journeys in performing arts: their relationships with their own bodies, with dance, with the stage; and crucially, the sacrifices and stresses of following this career. Thomas describes having to drop out of acting schools because his parents couldn’t afford the tuition; Oliver tells of the accident that disrupted his West End career; Amanda speaks of checking her CPF account and realizing she might never be able to own property.

And they talk back to the master, too. When the topic of his four ex-wives and eight kids scattered around the world comes up, Erwin says, “No disrespect, maestro, but have you never heard of condoms?”

They ask him why his wives called him neglectful, why he never compromised between art and love, and he speaks of being married to flamenco, his passion, his craft. And they point out that that sounds OK when you’re talking about dance, but it makes no sense when transferred to a more mundane discipline. Would we forgive a bad husband for being married to the art of insurance sales?

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And though it’s not explicit, there’s an undercurrent here about the centre vs. the periphery. For him, Spain’s the heart of it all, and his very name reflects this: it was chosen to cover up his French-speaking Sephardic Jewish Moroccan background, so that audiences could believe without hesitation that they were seeing the most best, most genuine form of Spanish dance.

So his decision to leave Spain, after achieving early nationwide fame, is framed as a move to the margins—yet it’s London he’s moving to; Swinging London of the 1960s: a place where he goes on BBC with the Beatles to do a flamenco version of She Loves You; where he meets his first wife, a French actress, who later abandons the house with his kids and throws all his costumes and choreographic scores into the Thames and (maybe) leaves all the gas on in the kitchen of his Spanish restaurant that makes it explode in a giant fireball.

Margins are also centres, where cultures may meet. Margins are where unexpected love may happen, and incendiary heartbreak.

Antonio Vargas in Strictly Ballroom
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And it’s the same story when he moves to New Zealand, then Australia in the 1980s, fleeing another bad breakup, drawn in by a hugely lucrative touring and hotel gigs. You’d think Sydney’s bum-eff nowhere compared to London, but this is how he ended up performing in Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom in 1992. First assigned to choreograph the pasodoble, he was asked to step in to a play a Latin American immigrant father (yet another subtle ethnic disguise) who guides the dancing duo to greatness—a role that made Vargas himself internationally famous, beyond the world of dance aficionados.

But there’s a catch to mainstream celebrity. Vargas is embarrassed by the over-theatrical, inauthentic pasodoble he had to do for Luhrmann; just like his role in Mission: Impossible II, where he was asked to choreograph a flamenco sequence for Tom Cruise and John Woo, but was forced to cast an untalented dancer because she looked the part, and got maybe ten seconds of screen time as the owner of a mansion in Seville where Cruise and Thandie Newton get their jewel-thief cute-meet.  

Antonio Vargas in Mission: Impossible II (3:48)
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Working with superstars is all about compromising on values. And yet—the cast reminds us—isn’t that very association with stardom the reason why most of us bought tickets?

And even in the midst of the sham, there’s the transcendent: Hans Zimmer recording Vargas’s stamping feet for M:I II for sixty hours, calling him a machine.

I’d said this show was a lesson, but it has no simple morals. There’s doubt at every corner—we’re reminded when we hear of what Vargas’s first wife did that this is only one side of the story; the Singaporean cast describe not their most famous roles but less canonical moments in their lives. Even our flamenco guitarist and singer, Sergio Muñoz and Antonio Soria, admit to their initial incomprehension and alienation towards flamenco. Both are from Spain, but they approached the tradition as outsiders.

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Come to think of it, no-one on stage is from the Gypsy/Romany culture from which flamenco originated. Or, conversely, you could claim everyone’s Gypsy: this is a tale of nomadic lives, people living hand to mouth, committed to the pursuit of culture.

Or can we? Vargas’s story is certainly a tale of migration, and so is that of many Singaporeans, in terms of ancestral origins, recent immigrations, ongoing explorations and future destinies.

Yet the Singaporean actors are, by and large, people who were born here and decided to make a go of it right here, in a place that has been on the periphery of high culture for so long that we often scoff at the idea that it might be a centre. They might be free spirits, but they’re homebound.

Antonio Vargas and Daphne Huang of Flamenco Sin Fronteras
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But then so is Vargas, isn’t he? He fell in love with a Singaporean doctor-cum-dancer, Dr Daphne Huang, in 2008, and moved here. And somehow he’s ended up living a model suburban life here, double-income (his wife runs a clinic in the morning and teaches flamenco and organises festival tours in the evenings), two kids doing Mandarin tuition, happily settled here for 11 years and dancing with his last love by the light of the stars…

That’s how Huzir put it, though. A sappy fairytale ending. Not even a hint of the possibility that he might up and move yet again. Though you can't help but wonder. He's 75, but if he can still dance, surely he can still run...

Nevertheless, he's here for now. And his very presence here, like that of the young actors, is an act of faith and commitment to the potential (ahem) of Singapore to be a cultural capital.

Antonio Vargas doing Qigong exercises
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And so we have a big breathtaking dance number, first by the young cast, then by Vargas himself, showing off how it's really done with every trick in the book...

A few more thoughts before I end this review. Director Claire Wong and playwright Huzir Sulaiman (another husband and wife team) are also Gypsies, in a sense: they're Malaysian citizens who've become Singaporean permanent residents. Huzir's cultural background is almost as complex as Vargas's: he's Indian Peranakan, and his family lived for generations in Singapore before he ended up in Malaysia (hence his other biographical play, focussing on his grandmother's life in WWII Singapore, Occupation).

Also, after Vargas's Jewishness was brought up a few times, I started thinking of the mythological figure of the Wandering Jew, an immortal destined to roam the earth forever: a potent symbol for the Jewish diaspora, forever in exile for their homeland. But of course, eight years after Vargas was born, the nation of Israel was founded—a fact that Vargas only alludes to at the end of the play, as a destination that's crossed his mind, but that he's never gotten round to migrating to.

There's no ideological reason for not making Aaliyah—just the destiny of a homeland deferred.

And last of all, the metaphor of Vargas as the last bull, lonely and legendary, dancing amidst the bones of his fallen brothers. Does it work?

Certainly, his longevity is a marvel. He's outlived many of his contemporaries on the stage: he says most dancers in their 70s can barely walk. He's incredibly fortunate to still have a stage career when others are wracked by arthritis; when one of his mentors actually ended up with a nail in his knee in his 20s and threw himself out of the window at the age of 42.

But are there no other bulls? Has he truly no protegés? If not in Singapore, then in the myriad lands he's wandered? Flamenco is by no means a dying art form, after all. Even on this island it looks set to prosper, unlike Chinese operatic traditions.

Perhaps what's being signified is that those who come after him are an entirely different kind of animal. Few can profess to have a life like his, especially not in Singapore, where our tendency in performing arts is to be generalists, learning from multiple traditions, embracing the contemporary and the universal, rather than adopting a single culture and carrying its flag across the world.

Or is every old man the last of his kind? And every old woman?

Photo by @jkxlm
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Huzir writes that this isn't just Vargas's story; it's everyone's story. So Vargas, like the bull, may be a mere metaphor. 

Because everyone dances through the ages of life. And if given proper treatment, everyone's story is worth telling, and worth learning from. 

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  • 2016