La Veronal, the collective formed by the Spanish choreographer Marcos Morau, is staging its new work Sonoma at the Théâtre de Chaillot. Known for his sublime stagings with surreal aesthetics and his precise dance inspired by physical theatre, Marcos Morau is back with a work of genius that marries feminine power and religious custom. Marcos Morau immerses us in a fascinating universe that pays homage to the Aragonese origins of Luis Buñuel, with a thrilling choreography, galvanizing music on a background of beating drums (inspired by the popular ceremonies of Holy Week in Aragon) and a dreamlike scenography where nuns, witches and old women with giant heads intersect with young girls in virginal attire. Sonoma and its magnificent (albeit sinister) Catholic-medieval folklore prodigiously marked the Avignon Festival in 2021, with a work proportionate – or rather equally disproportionate – to the grandiose facade of the Palais des Papes. It's a creation of breathtaking artistic richness.

© Alfred Mauve

Like the titles of most of Veronal's works (Russia, Islandia, Voronia, Siena, etc.), Sonoma is a place name, which evokes a region of California. However, the piece does not refer to this place but rather plays with the very name of Sonoma: in a somewhat esoteric approach, Marcos Morau dissects it to make it a magic word, a source of inspiration. It means in Native American tongues “valley of the moon” and is also the combination of two Greco-Latin words “soma” (body) and “sonum” (sound). From these crossed etymologies, Marcos Morau draws the main themes of his creation: the moon symbol of femininity, the central subject of Sonoma, and sepulchral light which bathes the stage and a choreography as physical as sound. The work on the voice is unprecedented in Sonoma, conceived as a ballet of cries, breaths, feminine polyphonies but also recitations of lavish poems, co-written by contemporary playwrights El Conde de Torrefiel, La Tristura and Carmina S Belda.

© Anna Fàbrega

The curtain opens on a phantasmagoric vision. Like disturbing traditional dolls, nine women with rigid bodies slide at full speed on the ground. They freeze around a cross stranded on the stage which, under an interlacing of ropes, looks like a boat anchor. They declaim modern beatitudes, weightily recited, like a cult rendered to the thousand faces of the contemporary world: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (…) blessed are the castaways of the seas (…), the survivors of wars, ( …) the damned of the land (…) those who will one day find a cure for cancer, malaria, AIDS, Alzheimer's…”. Sonoma's religious fervour seems like the hum of a tiny human facing God. The sisters look like fireflies attracted by the flashing light, their gesticulations evoke the swarms of insects. In an incredible choreographic sequence where they appear with their faces hooded, their forearms – like sharp claws – cut through space and form astonishing kaleidoscopic patterns. 

© Simone Cargnoni

Populated only by women, Sonoma is a work as poetic as it is radical on the feminine. From the beginning, the beatitudes celebrate the “forgotten women of history books”. This femininity is unveiled in its purity: to the music of Debussy, young girls in white giggle and swirl the corolla of their dresses. Capped with magnificent crowns of flowers, both virginal and mortuary, they gather to sing a feverish canon, punctuated by gasps and animal cries in a scene between religious ecstasy and nightmarish childbirth. But this femininity is also embodied in all its power: women-witches and women-warriors with vibrant, flexible, disarticulated bodies, twisted into positions of pleasure and pain. In a cathartic final scene, they pound drums and exult, facing the audience: “We who learned to master fire!!!”

Powerful women are not only part of Marcos Morau's imaginary world but are also performers in the flesh. The nine dancers of La Veronal chisel the space with a dance of dazzling precision. A breathless, virtuoso performance requiring total rhythmic concentration, Sonoma is a battle waged by extraordinary performers, ardent “superwomen” who make hearts beat to the frenzied cadence of their drums.

Translated from French by the author and David Karlin