Lorca has always exercised a fascination over the British stage, unusual for an author whose work is not written in English. Itís hard to think of another comparable figure whose works are produced so often. (Right now, the House of Bernarda Alba is playing again, this time at the Young Vic). Lorcaís works themselves have often been the subject of many dance interpretations (a recent revival brought us MacMillanís Las Hermanas again last year). Itís Lorca himself and his works which are the subject of Christopher Bruceís Cruel Garden, originally made with Lindsay Kemp in 1977 and revived by Rambert this season. It was presented at Sadlerís Wells last November, and returns again this week, ostensibly for its final performances. Itís a remarkable and gripping work, an ambitious mixture of dance and theatrics which is undeniably uneven, and yet even the bits that donít work as well are still interesting.
Cruel Garden is a very different experience from the typical Rambert programme, or even the typical contemporary dance programme - it is a big and spectacular affair, with the large cast and opulent costume designs which one might associate with a better funded ballet company. It also includes singing, both by flamenco singers and the cast, and the spoken word. But this isnít a straightforward narrative work, but a series of shifting scenes, played through in ninety minutes without interval, which allude to Lorcaís life, poems, plays and their characters, and his struggle against the forces of repression in Spain, personified by the Inquisitor and his agent the Bull, who kills the Lorca poet-figure not once but three times in the course of the work.
Cruel Garden moves through a series of scenes - the cool, mocking, betraying moon, beautifully danced by Miranda Lind, the bull fight where the Poet is defeated by the Bull: mourning and resurrection: scenes from a Bohemian cafe: episodes from some of the plays (with the Poet transformed into the female character) and, least successfully, an evocation of a surrealist screenplay ĎThe Afternoon of Buster Keatoní written by Lorca (and read aloud by the Inquisitor). By this point in the proceedings, it was already possible to feel dazed by the succession of episodes and images, but the Buster Keaton episode goes way over the top and out of sight. Choreographically, this is a fairly thin section (with a notable exception, of which more later) and Iíd guess that this section perhaps owes more to Kemp than Bruce.
Anyway, in fairly rapid succession it features a cockerel, a man with Butterflies in his Beard, a dancing pantomime cow, the people of Philadephia, and a bicycling girl with the head of a nightingale. (This is a very abbreviated list: believe me, there was more, much more). The only satisfying dance item came at the close of this sequence, when Paul Liburd gets to do a terrific solo set to a very scratchy old blues recording - movements which evoke both the toil of hard physical labour, weariness and despair, and occasional flashes of hope. Moving on via an evocation of the marathon dance competitions of thirties America, we return to the bullring for the final confrontation of the Poet and the Bull - and terrific stuff it is too, although you know the outcome is inevitable.
The Buster Keaton episode is doesnít really work too well: it takes us away from the main relationship between the Poet and the Bull which is at the centre of the work for the first hour. Although this starts as a straightforward confrontation between the Conor OíBrien as the Poet and Simon Cooperís brutal enraged bull, it becomes more ambiguous than that. Conor OíBrien zips through his role as the Poet with great style and guts, and looks tremendously elegant both in wielding his white cape as a matador costume, and dancing in the cafe in black tie. He transforms to a tremulous femininity in the play scenes (done in masks), where he becomes the bride of Blood Wedding, in a long white satin gown. She runs away with the Bull - to whom there is subsequently always an undercurrent of attraction.
The dance vocabulary is influenced somewhat by Spanish dance but does not pretend actually to be Spanish: it is still recognisably Bruce. The men have by far the best of it: there are few significant roles for the women, other than the Moon (which was a male role in the original production). What is interesting is to see Bruce handling a fairly large cast, which he does with great assurance. There are several ensemble dances involving more than twenty dancers onstage, which is quite unusual for contemporary dance in this country where itís unusual to see more than a dozen dancers in a single work. The duel of the Poet and the bulls at the climax is scary, violent and particularly compulsive viewing. The company work particularly hard in Cruel Garden, and give really committed performances.
Cruel Garden really is an integrated work of dance, music and theatre. I must mention Ralph Koltaiís magnificently atmospheric set, a blood-drenched bullring, whose central panel lifts to show vistas of the Spanish countryside or closes to cut off all hope of escape. The heavily percussive score is by Carlos Miranda. Singers at this performance were Rosario Serrano and Francois Testory.
Iím very fond of Cruel Garden, but I suspect it may be a love it or hate it work. (The audience loved it on this occasion, for the record). The ninety minutes passes amazingly quickly. The Buster Keaton episode is undeniably daft and any sensible person would have edited it out: fortunately, the creators of Cruel Garden werenít sensible, and Rambert havenít tinkered with it. Somehow the work functions as a whole and efforts to make it less cluttered might have removed its buoyant vitality and fevered charm.