Ballet Ireland have danced several times in London but never at Sadler’s Wells and never with the Irish ambassador as a warm-up, I fancy. A small company of about 12 dancers, they nonetheless pull off narrative works with intelligent contemporary panache while also doing classical works like The Nutcracker and, coming up, Swan Lake. They take ballet all over Ireland and there are signs, at last, that better state funding might be coming their way. That and pride in them as a cultural export and hence the verbal tap-dancing of the ambassador. As Carmen and others have shown, they do a pretty fine job in return and I hope their trajectory continues steadily upwards.
Carmen is the fourth narrative work created for Ballet Ireland by Morgann Runacre-Temple, their Choreographer in Residence, who is actually London based and works elsewhere also. I’ve seen her Romeo and Juliet and also Scheherazade on Ballet Ireland and both combined sparse contemporary designs with good storytelling and committed dramatic dancing. No surprise then Carmen bears these same hallmarks, to which can be added live music. Actually a mix of both live and recorded, recorded being all they can normally run to. Runacre-Temple uses Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite, originally created in 1967 for his wife, Maya Plisetskaya, with a running time of just 40 minutes. Too short for a full evening, and 40 minutes of Flamenco guitar have been woven into the performance by John Walsh who plays live on stage, at points augmented by a second guitarist – Salvador Andrades. So you still get the big Bizet tunes and also the feel of Seville, with the entire company having a juerga on stage with all its dancing, stamping, yelling, guitar-thumping and hand-clapping – they really do kick up a storm and the story at that point is left far behind in the joy of a spontaneous party. At other times the starkness of the guitar really punctuates the action. All up an inspired musical choice.
Central to the Carmen set is a 8ft cube made up of wooden planks arranged with gaps so you can easily see inside and which rotates, moves around the stage and opens up to be a jail, entrance-way, house, factory or even a carriage. The movement of the cube, some loose boxes for sitting or standing on, and cloth drapes, makes for interesting scene changes and no fly-tower is needed – you can perform this production in any sized space. A thoughtful job by Lorna Ritchie, who also did a good job of Scheherazade I recall.
Carmen, the woman, is probably one of the strongest female characters to be found on opera and ballet stages and I was particularly interested to see what a female choreographer would make of her. And the answer, with Runacre-Temple anyway, is she is not the all-consuming man-eater we often think. As danced by Zoe Ashe-Browne she is a free spirit that naturally attracts ‘problems’, perhaps more a victim of circumstance than architect of her own downfall. Dominic Harrison’s Jose, the man who gives up his fiance and job in the army for the love of Carmen, seems spot on in looks and demeanour – an ordinary man truly possessed. His steady decent into murderous oblivion is probably the best telling on stage. But the famous throat-slitting of Carmen comes almost unexpectedly in the end, the build up just before seems too insufficient. And Michaela, Jose’s fiance and sweetheart (Jane Magan), seems a role less stressed – I wanted to see much more of the touching heartbreak as she tries to reclaim her man. It is a very pacey telling and some key scenes need more time to work their full magic. Although the set can be reconfigured in myriad ways, perhaps there were too many such changes, resulting in a loss of dramatic impetus as you quickly scramble to unravel where you are.
All up, Carmen was one of the best productions I’ve seen on the Lilian Baylis stage if not actually as dramatically moving as either Romeo and Juliet or Scheherazade, seen elsewhere. You can’t win them all. But what I particularly like is that it’s not done as a ballet for ballet’s sake, with all the girls forced into pointe shoes and well-worn classical ballet phrases popping out all over, but as a finely serviceable contemporary production with a fresh approach to music, steps and ultimately realism. Amen to that.