When you create a new stage work that tells a story, what information do you want your audience to have before they watch it? Should you give them some background on the setting and the characters, a synopsis? Or should you decide that the work should stand on its own without any introduction?
Jose Agudo tends towards the second approach for his flamenco-inflected adaptation of Carmen. All he tells us is that he has drawn on Prosper Merimée’s novella. But the operatic version casts a long shadow: in our minds we may have a picture of how fiery free spirit Carmen seduces a naïve young soldier away from his fiancée and job, dumps him later when she fancies someone else, and gets murdered by her former lover as a result. But that version of the story isn’t quite what we see here.
Agudo does not give names of characters to any of his seven dancers as characters in this concentrated, intimate presentation. He shows more interest in creating a rich rippling movement vocabulary (drawing from contemporary, flamenco and kathak) rather than in the delineation of character and plot. There is a Carmen figure in a red dress, and she does meet a brutally violent end at the hands of a rejected boyfriend but there are unexpected details along the way. It’s a concentrated and intense sixty minutes, where the dancers seize on the mix of dance influences with great gusto and commitment, impressive but not as emotionally involving as the narrative perhaps ought to be.
Agudo’s original background was in flamenco, and he has also danced for European contemporary companies, and for Akram Khan, where he has been rehearsal director. All these influences have fused together in the work. The dancers are barefoot but their twining, serpentine arms suggest flamenco origins: finely articulated wrists and even the angle of the fingers give hints of kathak; much work on the floor is more typical of contemporary dance. The blend coheres agreeably and is at its best in group and unison sections. Agudo plays with groupings of men against women or the group against the excluded one. There isn’t much partnering or lifting until the climatic death duet for Carmen and her lover, one of the few moments that the protagonists are alone on stage: for most of the rest of the time all the cast are present.
All the women look strong and feisty. Early on we have a face-off between Carmen and one of the other women over a man, who Carmen successfully claims, but it doesn’t look a foregone conclusion: this twisting, interlocking female duet is watched by the rest of the cast. Later there’s a swift reference to Carmen having her palm read by one of the other dancers. This detail doesn’t register strongly. You could easily miss it: Carmen doesn’t seem to react much. But if she has just had her death foretold, it would be preferable for it to carry more weight. (Dramaturgy is by Denise Mullholland). Carmen is potentially such an intriguing character personality but Agudo doesn’t show us any striking insight into her choices: her motivation remains opaque.
The action moves along briskly. There’s a lively party scene where Carmen’s new love interest is introduced. The women literally let their hair down and the men’s’ waistcoats are undone. It leads to another confrontation between Carmen’s now former and current boyfriend. The final encounter between Carmen and her former lover is an extended duet where he hauls her off her feet as if disconnecting her from the earth, cutting her off from her source of strength. It’s a brutal, lengthy killing, strangled rather than stabbed. In a final concluding twist, the murderer is stabbed himself by one of the women.
Collaborators for the work include Bernhard Schimpelsberger who provides the recorded score, intensively percussive in the opening section before including more obviously flamenco guitar, and even, I think a saxophone – again an interesting blend. Costume design comes from Luke Azzopardi and Rosalind Noctor. They make this a distinctively modern Carmen. They dress the three men in black, each with a different simple waistcoat over a bare chest. The women are more colourful with the Carmen figure in a long red dress, and the other three women in yellow, grey, and grey-green.
The dancers are Nikita Goile, Joshua Scott, Luke Watson, Yukiko Masui, Faye Stoeser, Juan Sanchez Plaza and Nicola Micaleff. They work full out for the duration of the programme. The Place is so intimate a venue we can hear their rasping breath. They all got a warm reception from the audience.
It is great to see that the smaller dance companies and freelancers, who suffered so badly during the lockdowns, are now back on stage. It must have taken a lot of determination to put this show and tour together. Carmen has been touring through October and there are a couple of dates left to come in early November.