Flamenco dancer's life story turned into a play

(From left) Scripted by Huzir Sulaiman, The Last Bull: A Life In Flamenco charts the life of flamenco dancer Antonio Vargas and is directed by Claire Wong.
(From left) Scripted by Huzir Sulaiman, The Last Bull: A Life In Flamenco charts the life of flamenco dancer Antonio Vargas and is directed by Claire Wong.PHOTO: CHECKPOINT THEATRE

Checkpoint Theatre's The Last Bull: A Life In Flamenco looks at, among others, dancer Antonio Vargas' search for stability

Flamenco maestro Antonio Vargas is known here for starting dance troupe Flamenco Sin Fronteras, but in his 60-year career, he has worked with The Beatles, choreographed dance for Tom Cruise and won fame for acting in a cult comic movie by director Baz Luhrmann.

Checkpoint Theatre has turned the Singapore-based dancer's life story into a stage play for the Singapore International Festival of Arts. The Last Bull: A Life In Flamenco runs from Thursday to Saturday at the School of the Arts Drama Theatre.

Claire Wong directs and her husband, playwright Huzir Sulaiman, wrote the script after more than 50 hours of interviewing Vargas.

Text is key to the performance, but Huzir, 43, says: "I will write the play up to a point and then it's taken over by the dance. For me, it will always bring a tear to my eye to see Antonio's solos at key points in the show."

Vargas, 75, takes the stage alongside eight actors who are not professional dancers: Chanel Ariel Chan, Erwin Shah Ismail, Frances Lee, Oliver Pang, Thomas Pang, Seong Hui Xuan, Tan Shou Chen and Amanda Tee, who are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, were cast with his input.

Antonio knows how to move in space. He knows how to stand. He has this charisma switch that he just flips.

PLAYWRIGHT HUZIR SULAIMAN, on flamenco dancer Antonio Vargas

Huzir says of Vargas: "Dancers understand both movement and stillness. The biggest thing you have to contend with younger actors is getting them to understand that stillness is power.

"Antonio knows how to move in space. He knows how to stand. He has this charisma switch that he just flips."

The title, The Last Bull, was chosen to honour Vargas' Spanish roots - he was born in Morocco to a family of Spanish Jews - and for the sobering realisation that he has lost several old comrades in dance in the last few years.

Vargas, however, says: "Old? I don't know the meaning of the word."

He credits his own health to taiji, which he has practised daily for more than 20 years since encountering it in Australia.

He has been based in Singapore for 11 years and has also lived in England and New Zealand.

He trained with the well-known Antonio Marin of Spain, was a lead dancer in renowned troupes - the Pilar Lopez Spanish Dance Company and Rafael de Cordova Dance Company - and started The Antonio Vargas Flamenco Dance Theatre in the 1970s.

He worked on a television show with The Beatles, acted in Luhrmann's 1992 dance comedy Strictly Ballroom and choreographed a dance sequence for John Woo's Mission: Impossible II (2000), starring Cruise. He also had a cameo role as a Spanish tycoon in that movie.

He met Singaporean doctor and dance enthusiast Daphne Huang at a flamenco workshop in 2002. The couple are married with an 11-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter and run Flamenco Sin Fronteras together.

Vargas also has six other children from three previous marriages and other relationships.

A key thread of The Last Bull is his search for "stability and romantic fulfilment".

He says he did not mind sharing his feelings and experiences for the play. "I've never been bothered by truth. It's the basis of my own life."

He hopes some of his older children will be in the audience for The Last Bull.

Huzir says: "We've chosen to be very delicate and respectful of his earlier marriages because they are real people and there are other sides to the story.

"We wanted to create something all his wives, lovers, children could come and see."

•The Last Bull: A Life In Flamenco is sold out.

•For more Sifa 2016 stories, go to str.sg/ZtWh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2016, with the headline 'Dancer's life inspires play'. Print Edition | Subscribe