by Malcolm Tay

Among the world premieres at this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts, an unlikely hit was born. Tickets for The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco — a play about and starring a Singapore-based dancer — were sold out before its three-night run at the School of the Arts Drama Theatre. But Antonio Vargas is not just any dancer; the 75-year-old flamenco master’s life provided fertile material for playwright Huzir Sulaiman and director Claire Wong, the husband-and-wife team behind local group Checkpoint Theatre. Through Vargas’ story, they explored what it means to be an artist.

Born Aimé Honoré Azulay to a family of French-speaking Spanish Jews in Morocco, Vargas moved to London with his family at age 11 and first learned flamenco from the noted teacher Elsa Brunelleschi. She arranged for him to audition for the eminent Spanish dancer PilarLópez, and, at 16, he joined López’s company in Madrid. His colleagues included Antonio Gades, Mario Maya and other big names whom he has since outlived.

Vargas set up his own troupe six years later, and secured a seven-year contract with the English producer Harold Fielding to tour Britain and Europe. This led to stints in New Zealand and Australia, where he received a part in the 1992 romantic comedy film Strictly Ballroom. In 2008, he settled in Singapore and, today, runs the company Flamenco Sin Fronteras with doctor-dancer Daphne Huang.

In The Last Bull, Vargas was featured alongside eight youngish actors who, under his training, managed to mimic to some degree the proud posture, serpentine arms and stamping feet of flamenco dancers. This ensemble of four women and four men offered a shifting counterpoint to the script and widened its theatrical scope in ways that a one-person show would not have been able to achieve, particularly for a tale spanning several seven decades and four continents.

The play began with Vargas guiding the actors in a classroom exercise, segueing into pithy, engaging recreations of the past as they took turns portraying him at different ages. Mainly he just watched, but sometimes he felt compelled to comment on the action, speaking with an Antipodean lilt. Interrupting a re-enactment of his scene from Strictly Ballroom, he shared his chagrin at having to do a “fake paso doble with farruca steps” for the movie, even though it did make him famous to a larger audience.

Vargas’ professional opportunities seemed to come at the cost of three marriages and other relationships, prompting the actors to question his apparent unwillingness to strike a balance between art and love. And the departures of wives or partners, often with their children, marked key emotional points in the play where dancing took over the stage, with guitarist Sergio Muñoz and singer Antonio Soria accompanying Vargas in expressive passages, most of which blended seamlessly with the narrative.

Vargas might lack the vigour of a younger man, but he remains a confident performer, filling the space even when still and displaying precise footwork with the heel and toe, especially in the extended solo that concluded the production. But The Last Bull also belonged to the actors and musicians, their soliloquies of doubt and fear about pursuing the arts threading through the play. Oliver Pang revealed how a motorcycle accident had ended his budding career in West End musical theatre; Amanda Tee confessed to worrying about never earning enough to buy property. Their stories mirrored Vargas’ own, reflecting how one artist’s search for fulfillment can be meaningful to others.

Another premiere, American choreographer Bill T. Jones’ A Letter/Singapore at the Singapore Airlines Theatre, suggested an altogether different sort of journey. In collaboration with 22 dance majors of the LASALLE College of the Arts, Jones had revised this piece from a 2015 work that was addressed to his nephew, Lance Briggs, a former dancer now bedridden by illness; it had its first performance in Paris not long before the mass shooting at the Bataclan theatre. In A Letter/Singapore, burning cars, marching protesters and other images of unrest were projected on white cardboard screens as members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company brawled with one another and mixed hip-hop and voguing with space-covering steps and tender duets. Jones’ message to Briggs scrolled across the screens, but it felt lost in the collage of movement, text and other media that broached many topics while trying to make sense of the turmoil in the world today.

Visions of conflict were also found in Black Sun, a festival commission from Indonesian painter, choreographer and filmmaker Sardono W. Kusumo. Presented at the revamped rice warehouse known as 72-13, it started strongly with the performers crawling under giant woks like beetles, inspired as it were by the plight of refugees from Southeast Asia and the Middle East stranded in boats at sea. But the mayhem that followed — men yelling and rushing about as another waved a toy gun with flashing lights — was a mystery.


Antonio Vargas and ensemble in The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco
Photo: Kevin Lee © CAKE Images