Noche Flamenca, a New York based flamenco troupe, performed Antigona – an interpretation of Sophocles' Antigone – at University of Southern California on Mar. 1, 2017 for a full house as part of Visions and Voices.

Flamenco and ancient Greek tragedy may seem like an odd pair to most people, but for creative director and producer Martín Santangelo from Noche Flamenca it's a perfect fit. Because like Greek tragedy, flamenco expresses life's most powerful emotions. His own life seemed to mirror that of Antigone, Sophocles' tragic heroine.

Seven years ago, a Spanish judge named Baltasar Garzón tried to exhume the bodies of those who fought against the Franco regime and were buried in mass graves. Garzón wanted to return these people to their families for a proper burial. But super-conservatives in Spain wanted to forget about the past and their arguments convinced everyone else that they should too.

"Of course, one night, there was a version of Antigone on my table and I was in my house and by accident or by fate, I read it. And I thought, 'Holy s***! This is the same thing that's going on!' And I said I've got to do this play," said Santangelo. Antigona soon became Santangelo's first pure narrative that he's told through flamenco.

Noche Flamenca first performed Antigona in 2014 at the University of Washington as part of an artist's showcase. Since then, the troupe has toured the U.S., and Antigona continues to be seen as a call-to-action to stand up and speak truth to power, even in the face of oppression.

Antigona opens with darkness as a voice ululates, supplicating to Zeus. Dancers arise from under a wavering black sheet on the stage as flamenco dancers take over stage right. (Photo by Chris Bennion)
Antigona opens with darkness as a voice ululates, supplicating to Zeus. Dancers arise from under a wavering black sheet on the stage as flamenco dancers take over stage right. (Photo by Chris Bennion)

Sophocles wrote Antigone in 5th century B.C. It's a convoluted family tragedy that begins when Oedipus, exiled from Thebes, leaves his two sons to rule. They decide to share the throne – cue civil war and fratricide. Creon, their uncle and Thebes' new ruler, declares the son who was in power at the time of the war "honorable" and the other "traitorous."

Creon forbids anyone from giving the traitor a proper burial. Antigone, their sister, disobeys the order, symbolically burying her brother with a handful of dirt.

Creon sentences Antigone to be buried, but she kills herself rather than wait for her execution. Her aunt and her fiancé, Creon's son and wife, take their lives too.

Antigone's refusal to bow to a tyrant is especially timely for many Americans today.

Vincent Farenga, a classics professor at the University of Southern California, said Creon "perverts his sense of divine sanction" when he chooses not to bury the dead. The play's tension is between the state and divine law, an inherent sense of right and wrong.

Blinded by hubris, or excessive pride, Creon violates these inherent laws. Farenga emphasized that as Creon "misreads and misunderstands the gods' wishes," he falls deeper and deeper into his ultimate demise. Only Antigone has the courage to stand up to him.

"Whenever one wishes to promote…revolutionary values or transformational values that will resist the status quo, that will resist the authority of the day, whether that authority is political or religious or social, [Antigone] is the perfect vehicle," Farenga said. "She's easy to appropriate."

Santangelo, recognizing Antigone's defiance and revolutionary spirit, connected her to his own political beliefs.

Obsessed with her struggle, Santangelo immersed himself in the story. He started by translating Sophocles into flamenco. For every line, he found a note, a movement, a lyric. Next, he asked musicians to help him develop the narrative through music. Finally, his dance company brought it to life.

Since 2014, the performance has evolved. After President Donald Trump's election, Santangelo made another addition to the play. In Creon's speech to his citizens, he makes an allusion to Trump's campaign promise – "I will make Thebes great again."

With sword in hand, Creon accepts his new role as king. While Antigona’s brothers lay dead at his feet, Creon speaks about his plans to “make Thebes great again.” (Photo by Zarmik Moqtaderi)
With sword in hand, Creon accepts his new role as king. While Antigona’s brothers lay dead at his feet, Creon speaks about his plans to “make Thebes great again.” (Photo by Zarmik Moqtaderi)

"The more I understand the play, the more I rehearse. I think the moment that I stop working on the play is the moment I'll hope that we don't do it again," he said.

Part of that evolution comes from the artists themselves. After working on the play for seven years, Santangelo said that the "structure is very clear." The artists have evolved in their characters, their music and their movements.

Every night, the play changes. The performers improvise 10 to 15 percent of the show to keep the passion of flamenco alive.

Even so, the flamenco in Antigona is "as traditional as it gets," according to Santangelo.

"In the play you'll see some of the most traditional theater and traditional flamenco. The way they play, the way they sing, and the way they dance," he said. "There are new things, but I'm not expanding. I'm just using what exists. I'm not inventing anything. It's just carefully using what exists. That's the joke of it."

Flamenco began in southern Spain and originated with Gypsies, who eventually incorporated artistic traditions from local Muslims and Sephardic Jews. Flamenco uses three main elements: music, movement and song. Dancers use their entire bodies as well as their facial expressions to release and portray their deepest emotions.

After watching the performance, Sasha Anawalt, dance critic and journalism professor at USC, said, the play's political significance was as striking as the performance.

"I was sitting there listening to Creon and thinking, 'Oh, he's sort of like Trump,'" Anawalt said. "And then he says, 'We can make Thebes great again.' It was wonderful! So the story, as it should like all Greek stories, needs to help you understand your present."

Anawalt wasn't the only audience member struck by the performance. Antigona received a standing ovation.

With another successful show under his belt, Santangelo said he hopes to bring Antigona to Spain, though he wonders how it would be received in certain parts of the country. Since day one, his objective has been to remind people that: "if we become dictators, we lose our humanity."

"My dream, my hope every night is that at least one person goes 'Oh OK, I better not become a dictator,'" Santangelo said. "Whether it's in your job or your family or your community or as a president, you're conscious of [becoming a dictator] and the tragedies [from that] that befall."

Reach staff reporter Cat Clark here.