La Bella Otero, icon of the Belle Époque and lover of kings, revives on stage | Culture


Rehearsal of the play 'La Bella Otero', choreographed and directed by Rubén Olmo, at the headquarters of the Spanish National Ballet at the Matadero in Madrid.
Rehearsal of the play ‘La Bella Otero’, choreographed and directed by Rubén Olmo, at the headquarters of the Spanish National Ballet at the Matadero in Madrid.Santi Burgos

The cuplé used to be an ephemeral flower. Soon one letter went out of style and another, even more catchy, replaced it. That is why Agustina Otero (1868-1965), known as La Bella Otero, sought permanence through cabaret. Born in a Pontevedra village, she cleaned noble houses, sang in brothels and prostituted herself, until Paris made her a symbol of the Belle Époque and its frivolities. There he headed the Folies Bergère poster for a decade, where a boisterous troop of contortionists and dancers gathered who obtained popular favor. In that show a fame was established that led her to tour the tables of the whole world and the bedroom of six European kings, but fate wanted to return her in old age to the misery of her childhood. She had squandered her fortune in casinos on the Côte d’Azur and died alone in a Nice motel.

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In that room he barely left a handful of francs and fake jewelery, a sad epilogue to a life of excess. Now the National Ballet of Spain (BNE) rescues its history – also taken to film and television – through a production led by the director of the company, Rubén Olmo, who signs the choreography. It can be seen from July 7 to 18 at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid and has the musical direction of Manuel Busto and the dramaturgy of Gregor Acuña-Pohl. Of great dimensions, the show has involved a hundred professionals, which leads Olmo to define it as an “operatic ballet that puts dance at the service of the argument”. Using dolls, flamenco and contemporary dance, he recreates a wild time that did not seem to presage the horror of the First World War.

The choreographer Rubén Olmo rehearses with the dancers of the Spanish National Ballet last Monday.
The choreographer Rubén Olmo rehearses with the dancers of the Spanish National Ballet last Monday.

Santi Burgos

“The drama of Bella Otero led me to visualize a great staging,” Olmo sentenced minutes before a rehearsal at the Matadero in Madrid. The current head of the BNE knows the institution well, where he joined at age 18 as a dancer and left five years later with the aim of founding his own company. His return has involved a series of historical inquiries. He began by unraveling the figure of Antonio el Bailarín – the artist who set Broadway on its feet while the last survivors of republican Spain bled to death in the postwar period – and has continued with the tragedy of Agustina Otero. “I’ve been thinking about a project about her since I started dancing. For years it has been kept in the drawer, waiting for the right moment to appear ”, says the artist. A multipurpose scenography will give way to indoor and outdoor scenes.

The plot takes place between the Liceo de Barcelona and the Parisian cafes, the Monte Carlo casino and the court of the last tsar of Russia, enclaves through which Otero walked before falling from grace. Acuña-Pohl’s research consisted of “discerning the historical facts from the myth that she herself nurtured” with the publication in 1926 of a hemmed autobiography. In this it said to come from the love between a Sevillian gypsy and the Greek aristocrat J. Carasson. But her life was always the object of scrutiny and the American writer Arthur H. Lewis ended up denying this fact, when three decades later he brought up the birth certificate with which an octogenarian Otero requested financial help from the French Social Security. Something similar happened with the rape she suffered at age 11 and she always denied, even when the press leaked the injunction to her attacker, a shoemaker from her village.

1909 postcard with a photograph of Bella Otero, a dancer of international fame.
1909 postcard with a photograph of Bella Otero, a dancer of international fame. Apic / Getty Images

That attack resulted in a pelvic fracture that left her sterile. It is known that Otero then ran away from home, where he lived with his mother and four brothers, and ended up in a convent of Oblate nuns who collected women considered astray. “These adolescent years are still hazy,” says Acuña-Pohl, who devoured the six titles that have been published about his life, most of them out of print. The writer Gonzalo Torrente Ballester documented in JB’s saga / fuga (1972) the conversion of Otero into a medium hair artist who was lavished on the stages of Barcelona. The owner of a circus discovered her while she was busy scrubbing the stairs of a community of neighbors, “rushing with a slow and disturbing movement,” wrote Torrente. She was taken from the circus world by another patron and lover, the banker Ernest Jurgens, who committed suicide when she left him for Kaiser Wilhelm II.

“I wanted to show a person with a lot of magnetism, charisma and strength, who struggled to be independent and was a victim of his past,” says the playwright. Patricia Guerrero, soloist in the show Flamenco today (2010), directed by the filmmaker Carlos Saura, wears the skin of a young Otero. His is the historical responsibility to recreate some numbers of which no recorded images are preserved. “There remains the gesture of some old photographs, from which I have deduced the movement,” says the bailaora. Otero also left history with a dark, powerful and sad look, which the painter Julio Romero de Torres immortalized in oil. “I just hope to be at the level of those eyes,” confesses Guerrero.


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