In a pre-curtain speech before the final performance of this year’s Cannes Dance Festival, director Brigitte Lefèvre said she was aware that her choice of companies had provoked mixed reactions from audiences, but her aim had been to show a full spectrum of today’s dance scene. She definitely kept the best for the last night with Johan Inger’s full-length production of Carmen performed by the National Ballet of Spain. The classical ballet company was founded in 1979, alongside the National Dance Company specialising in Spanish dance, under the direction of Victor Ullate, The Russian ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, and the Spanish choreographer, Nacho Duato succeeded him, Duato staying for 20 years at the helm to be followed by José Carlos Martinez in 2011. Martinez had a brilliant career as a dancer, notably as a danseur étoile with the Paris Opéra Ballet, as well as winning a string of prizes at international dance competitions. He had also been active as a choreographer for several years before taking over the direction of the company in Madrid which performs a wide repertoire of classical and contemporary works.
Swedish born John Inger, the choreographer of this 2015 production of Carmen, danced with the Royal Swedish Ballet and the Nederlands Dans Theater before being appointed Artistic Director of the Cullberg Ballet in 2003. He had already commenced choreographing with NDT and since leaving Cullberg Ballet is active as a free-lance choreographer as well as remaining resident choreographer with NDT. His very successful Walking Mad has now been performed in Britain by the National Dance Company Wales.
The drama and the colour of Carmen have attracted a number of choreographers, with Roland Petit’s 1949 version remaining the best known, so it was interesting to see what a Nordic choreographer would bring to this very southern European work. It did not start very promisingly, with a recorded version of the Toreador’s Song being belted out in a semi-darkened auditorium and the appearance of a young boy in a sailor suit wandering across the stage once the house curtain was raised. Playing with a ball against a huge set of doors which form a building stretching across the stage, he is accosted by a strange figure in black, his face a blackened mask, and pushed roughly to the floor. Inger has stated that he wished the action to be seen through the eyes of an innocent young boy, but the significance of this remained unclear.
However the mood changes with the arrival of three male dancers ( the prison guards) swooping onto the stage with a powerful dance, full of energy and gusto, followed by the entrance of the working girls from the tobacco factory, or prison. Inger has used music from Bizet’s score as well as Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite, written for his wife, Maya Plisestkaya, and with some additional contemporary music this proves to be an excellent mixture of the familiar, interspersed with more realistic sound. Don José (Daan Vervoort) is the main prison guard, soon to be bewitched by the very attractive and overtly sexy Carmen (Emilia Gisladdöttir) who dances her ‘habanera’, surrounded by the company. Scenes follow very similar to the scenario of the opera: there is a violent fight between Carmen and one of the women, a marvellously lively tavern scene and the arrival of the Toreador, who in this case is more a pop star in a black sequinned jacket and shiny black trousers. Carmen has left Don José with a single flower, which leads to a dream sequence where he is showered with flowers. This is dramatically interrupted as he has allowed Carmen to escape the prison, and he is stripped of his officer’s epaulettes and imprisoned. The mood becomes darker as the scenery is moved constantly to form a prison cell, the Toreador’s mirrored rooms, or, when tormented by a large group of men dressed grotesquely in black and wearing black masks, Don José is enclosed in a cage from which he cannot escape. There is a very passionate and moving pas de deux with Carmen, leading to a rather sentimental vision of a happy family life, with the small boy, which, of course, they will never have. The second act becomes more and more dramatic leading to Don José’s fatal stabbing of Carmen following a long scene full of both violent fighting and passionate lovemaking.
Working for many years with NDT, it is inevitable that Inger’s choreography is influenced by Jiri Kylian’s work and similarities can be found, especially in the pas de deux. However, he is a much more theatrical and dramatic choreographer for whom the choreography tells the story and forms the characters. He brings a darker, (Nordic?), side to his story-telling which well suits the passion and tragedy of Carmen. The three principal roles are excellently portrayed and in particular by the Belgian Daan Vervoort, who as Don José is quite magnificent, a powerful actor-dancer as well as a first class dancer. The Icelanic Emilia Gisladdöttir as Carmen, dances the role excellently, is sexy and flirtatious and sustains her lengthy scenes admirably, but I felt that more maturity would have been needed while Toby William Mallitt as the Toreador, here called Zuňiga, was suitably vain and extrovert. A multi-national and highly attractive company, it is one I have not seen before and was most impressed with the general standard of dancing and the strength and energy they sustained throughout the performance.