Telling life stories via dance

The life of 75-year-old Singapore-based flamenco dancer Antonio Vargas is enacted on stage by Vargas himself, eight actors and two musicians in The Last Bull. PHOTO: KEVIN LEE



Checkpoint Theatre, Huzir Sulaiman, Claire Wong, Antonio Vargas/

School Of The Arts Drama Theatre/ Thursday

The Last Bull: A Life In Flamenco is an energetic, enjoyable piece of dance-theatre that has the audience stamping feet and clapping in time to the soul-stirring rhythms of dancer Antonio Vargas' performance and choreography.

In the silence between beats are poignant meditations on identity and also the unseen, easily dismissed interconnectedness of this world where, today, frightened groups of people are banding together and building walls to shut out outsiders.

Vargas, whose life is enacted on stage by eight performers and two musicians, knows what it is like to be an outsider.

Born into a family of French- speaking Spanish Jews in Morocco, he moved to England at age 11 without knowing a word of English and then to Spain on his own as a teenage dancer fighting for recognition within the Pilar Lopez Spanish Dance Company.

All the while, his father (a delightful Erwin Shah Ismail, who also plays Vargas a little later in the play), wanted his son to drop dance and pick up the piano.

A drummer and accountant himself, he saw no reason why his son could not also balance a respectable musical career with an equally respectable profession, say, as a doctor or lawyer.

Moments like this make The Last Bull a Singapore or Asian story. Then it becomes hair-raisingly, beautifully universal as Erwin and Vargas raise their voices harmoniously in the Muslim and Jewish calls to prayer, bringing to life the complex, multicultural Morocco the dancer knew.

At a little over 140 minutes, The Last Bull is not long enough to cover a life that includes dancing before Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, working with The Beatles, hanging out with The Rolling Stones and playing a cameo in John Woo's Mission: Impossible II (2000) with Tom Cruise.

Delightfully, the play written by Huzir Sulaiman and directed by Claire Wong makes the audience prefer instead the personal stories of Vargas' marriages and friendships with other flamenco dancers and musicians.

Dance and music are the heart of this production, another stand-out commission from the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

It is so strong that its few weak spots are glaringly obvious: Exposition when dancing would have served better to express Vargas' memory of his father's last days and also the failure of his three previous marriages.

Multimedia (James Khoo) is also not used to its full potential.

During a sketch about Vargas' work on the Baz Luhrmann film, Strictly Ballroom (1992), one might imagine the scene ending with footage from the film playing over Vargas' now aged face. Instead, there is black-and-white video of his current self performing.

Vargas' stand-out solos are ably supported by the ensemble, though the clean lines and carriage of Oliver Pang and Seong Hui Xuan stand out. So does Frances Lee's aching vocals as Seong and Vargas perform a sorrowful pasodoble.

Spanish artists Antonio Sora (vocals) and Sergio Munoz (guitar) command attention as much as the ensemble which includes Chanel Ariel Chan, Thomas Pang, Tan Shou Chen and Amanda Tee.

All actors play Vargas at different stages of his life.

The performers, including the musicians, have the chance to speak their own piece as well as about their work or what flamenco means to them.

The individual stories show again why one artist's journey has resonance with so many others.

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

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline Telling life stories via dance. Subscribe