The Queer Art of Sacrifice. An Interview with Carlos Pons Guerra

Spanish-born choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra talks about his queer adaptation of Puccini’s iconic opera, Madama Butterfly. In the opera, a young geisha sacrifices her culture, family and religion in order to marry an American sailor, Pinkerton, who only sees her as a frail oriental souvenir. Pons Guerra’s exciting and dramatic new version takes place in Cuba, where a male sex worker falls ominously in love with a Western sailor, who asks him to sacrifice his gender in exchange for love and a better life outside of Cuba.

What drew you to Madame Butterfly?
Carlos: I sometimes like to think that I was not the only queer teenager who would robe themselves in a silk kimono, belonging to some extravagant family member, and, demurely perched on a window ledge, lip synching to the straining and heart wrenching sounds of Maria Callas in her unique rendition of Pucccini’s Un Bel di Vedremo. I know I am not the only one; I have experienced the cathartic beauty of spontaneous communal lip synchs of the aria, or of sudden DIY re-enactments of highlights from Miss Saigon, multiple times. Madame Butterfly is, to me and to many, a passionate signifier of queer experience, because its tragic heroine, Cio-Cio San, ultimately does what we have been doing all along: sacrifice all she is so she can be loved and accepted.

The opera’s protagonist abandons her faith, family and life in the wild hope that the man that objectifies her, the sailor Pinkerton, will finally accept her. Why do we queers wear kimonos and wail to Puccini? Many of us have lost our families so that we can love who we want to, or be who we want to. Many of us have lost who we loved, or our real selves, so that we can keep a home. The majority of us has lost their childhoods to homophobia. In a still not so queer-friendly world, we constantly negotiate renouncing who we are, because in passing, in assimilating, in adapting, we desperately hope to be accepted. I paraphrase Sylvia Plath and believe that sacrifice is an art, like everything else. We queers do it extremely well.

How does Mariposa’s protagonist relate to Madame Butterfly?
Carlos: In the process of creating Mariposa, I finally understood the enthrallment with the character of Madame Butterfly: we have all, to some extent, been Cio-Cio San. And so, our protagonist, a young man nicknamed Mariposa (“butterfly” in Spanish), a sex worker trapped in the colourful bell jar that was post-revolution Cuba, embodies her sacrifices. His desire to dream freely, to love freely, to live freely, drive him to take steps that can’t be re-treaded, pathways that we all have, at some point, followed.

Mariposa is set in Cuba, and includes spirits and gods from an ancient religion imported from Africa, Santería. What inspired you to introduce these elements?
Carlos: Santería, is a religion that travelled the ominous voyage from Africa to Cuba centuries ago. A religion that believes in direct relations with the ether, in communal experience, in sacrifice: this to me read as the epitome of queerness, and when adapting Puccini to the Caribbean, I was inspired by the rites, the spiritual affiliations, the multiplicity of meanings of this tradition, and brought them into the world of Mariposa to create a sort of fable, one of queer divinity, where sacrifice means loss, but also rebirth and transformation: another art that life has made us highly versed in.

There are some strong postcolonial themes in the production as well.
“The man who wears the uniform of the sailor is in no way pledged or bound to obey the rules of prudence” read the first few lines of Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest, whose eponymous troubled sailor inspired our Preston. My research in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, as well as the words of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, taught me that in a postcolonial world, white seamen still have devastating effects on post-colonised lives and hearts. In this work, I ask what the sailors of the west do to the hopes of queer subjects.

Mariposa features men dancing in pointe shoes, which are normally worn by female dancers. Can you tell us about this?
Carlos: For me, the pointe shoe is a universal signifier of a perfectly constructed femininity worn almost solely by female ballet dancers, and as such, is also an icon of Western élites. Postcolonial theorists like Homi Bhabha or Franz Fanon speak of mimicry, of wearing the mask of the white man, as a form of colonial resistance. Here, Mariposa wears the shoe not only of colonial power, but also of constructed, binarized gender. She rises on the shoes in an attempt to dance to the binary of power, but the truth remains that the seats as its table are still limited, and invite-only.

The production is subtitled “A Queer Tragedy.” What is the main message it sends out about the queer community, both in Cuba and beyond?
Carlos: In the postcolonial site that is the docklands of Mariposa, I propose queerness as resistance, as choice, as malleability and creation. The third act takes place amidst the AIDS crisis that ravaged Cuba, and its tragic mortality also redefines futurity and temporality. There are no trans characters in the work: only transformations, new ideations and formulations. Aided by a pantheon of radical queer deities and spirits, with Mariposa we understand that through loss we metamorphose, and that the pain of our sacrifices, of skins shed and new bodies found, give us a strength and light that are unique, and allow us to love more deeply, to hope more keenly, and to dance more freely.