Review – God’s Garden – Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

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Tonight J and I went to the Linbury to see God’s Garden, a dance piece by Arthur Pita combining two things I was very interested to see on stage: Madeira and Fado. Fado is the music of Portugal – sort of like the French chansons, tending to be sad – and I enjoy it. Madeira is an island I’ve visited a few time, a glorious, flower-covered island owned by Portugal. I don’t know much about it’s folk culture, but I wasn’t being checked at the gate, so off we went.

The piece was described as being about the unexpected consequences of the anger of a rejected bride. I expected a big tale of revenge, perhaps a retelling of “Like Water for Chocolate” with overtones of “Blood Wedding.” Instead, what I got was a tale of a family in Madeira (patio living and lots of potted flowers) dealing with each other, including the wayward brother (Nuno Silva) who, er, ditched his bride (Valentina Golfieri) at the altar and apparently ran off to drug-filled discos. After the bride was left at the altar, we got to hear a lovely Fado song that was presumably about having your heart broken. Then the bride did a solo in which she stood on one foot and used her leg to draw big circles in the air at times and did sort of stubby anguished leaps (she was so short she couldn’t make them graceful).

After a scene in which the bride’s family negotiated with the other family for financial recompense, we turned to the Groom, running away, dancing, and getting very doped up. He finally returned home, was patched up by gram (Diana Payne-Meyers) and pregnant sis (Lorena Randi), then feted by dad (Lucas Costa) and the rest of the family (cue mimed catching and killing pig for presumed feast). This celebration involved Silva sitting on the table in a big chair and singing “Canto Fado,” which led to a lights-up moment where the cast went out and handed out wine and tried to encourage the audience to sing along (the two Portuguese beside me took them up on the singing, so I went for it, too. No luck with the wine).

Later Granny dies, performing a really impressive solo (given that she looked to be about 70 years old) in which she collapses and then gets back up and dances again, once even doing the splits. She’s buried and then semi-dances a memorable duet with Costa. The tension in this came because Costa is blind, and as he lifted and carried her (and she at one point rolled away from him, and he rolled after), there was an incredible energy of knowing that he couldn’t see us or anything, that he was no longer using his cane or being led by anyone – and it seemed that much more like he was truly bereft by his mother’s death.

Then the vengeful bride comes back, forces the runaway groom to dance with her, and apparently chokes her in her decolletage. It ends with Golfieri dancing on a table over her dead would-have-been husband while the groom’s sister stabs a flowerpot with a big knife.

Does any of that make sense? To me, it seemed like a series of moments that mostly only had a dream-like relation to one another. The guitar playing and singing were all really enjoyable, and I was shocked at what a good voice the groom had. Granny was an amazing dancer – fleet of foot and so flexible that at one point I was checking to see if she was wearing a mask. I was really impressed that they’d manage to work in not just a solo for a person who can’t see, but a duet where he had to find his partner – it was very dramatic. There were certainly some real nods to Madeiran culture – I think the folk dance they did when Groom returned was the real thing – but I could not figure out a real “why” to what was going on. Still, the singing was great, they handed out free wine, and I’ve rarely seen someone so utterly suited to being on stage without underwear as Mr. Silva. So while this was not, in my mind, a great work of dance, it was memorable and an enjoyable night out. (Note: don’t hesitate to take a seat on the end of the aisle, as this will greatly improve your chances of getting some free vino.)

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 11th, 2010. The final performance will be on February 13th. The ROH site says it “brings to life the intensity and drama of village life through dance, text and live fado music,” which I think isn’t really true, but it was pleasant nonetheless. For another take, please see the review in the Guardian.)

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