Ballet: Passionate Carmen on stage in Auckland

The Meridian Season of Carmen
Royal New Zealand Ballet
Aotea Centre, The Edge, Auckland
July 7-10

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s latest production, Carmen, opens at the Aotea Centre tonight after a nationwide tour of five centres.

The huge cigarette billboard dominating the opening set of the ballet features the phrase Que Sabor Maravilhoso – “what a marvelous taste.” This provides something of a graphic idea about the ballet to follow.

There may be an initial savouring of the taste and the smell of the cigarette but it can lead to dire consequences.

When the opera Carmen was first staged many found it to be offensive as it featured a gypsy prostitute, who fraternised with criminals and who was killed by her obsessed lover.

It was one of the first of the “versimo” operas concerned with gritty realism and sex rather than romantic love. It has since become one of the most performed and well loved operas.

This production does not have the grittiness and rampant sexuality of some versions, focusing more on the notion of thwarted passion and desires in a world that is confused in its pursuit of pleasure.

It is a thoroughly engaging and absorbing work set in 1990’s Rio de Janeiro. This gives it a contemporary feel, made even more relevant by use of some football matches that screen in the Bar Pastia.

The ballet follows the general story line with Jose (Michael Braun) slowly becoming infatuated with Carmen (Pieter Symonds), who works at the local cigarette factory.

In this version Jose is a policeman rather than soldier, Escamillo is a rock star rather than a bullfighter and the smugglers become Mafia hoods.

In the opening first act, after the local youths have provided a frenetic dance of macho posturing, the girls from the cigarette factory engage in a dance that slowly evolves from cool lethargy into an intense series of moves that look more like an aerobics workout.

These two groups provide a background of uninhibited sexual display which underscores the storyline.

Jose’s dancing with his girlfriend Michaela (Kate Hurst-Saxon) exquisitely captures their sensitive relationship and this is conveyed in the way each supports the other and acts as a contrast to Jose’s later dancing with the sinuous and sulky Carmen.

Their later Act II pairing captures the essence of a purer love with both of them displaying more voluptuous movements in contrast to the more unrestrained movements of Carmen and Jose.

In two sequences, Symonds dances with Kyle Wood, who manages to create a suave but slightly camp and leaden footed Chief of Police, providing a perfect foil to the more engagaing and athletic Michael Braun.

The Act II dance sequences in the Bar Pastia are given an interesting counterpoint in the football matches on the large TV screen.

This not only gives it a contemporary link with the World Cup in South Africa but also provides a connection between the elegance of the moves of the football players on the field and those in the bar.

The entrance of Escamillo, the rock star, to a grunty version of Bizet’s music introduces a raunchy aspect and allows Carmen to explode in a dance that combines sensuality, disdain, wilfulness and wretchedness.

This leads into a captivating pas de deux in which the bodies of Jose and Carmen slide and slither around the bedroom with a sexual energy and physicality which might require a PG rating.

In the final pas de deux the subtle mixture of violence and lust creates a keen physicality but there are also passages where Symonds stands completely motionless, her stillness as potent as her dancing.

The warehouse scene with a bunch of Mafia hoods that carry on with a nice stereotypical swagger looked like something out of West Side Story and provides a well judged setting to reveal another side of Carmen’s personality.

The dancing of the principals and the corps de ballet is brilliantly orchestrated and in many of the sequences the dance steps evolve out of the everyday movement of the dancers.

Choreographer Didy Veldmsan and choreologist Tatiana Coelho have devised some unique steps and poses in which the male dances elevate their partners from the ankles, thighs and back

The female dancers wear no shoes and this gives their dancing an earthiness allowing them to perform in an almost reptilian fashion, which seems a more fitting way of interpreting the music.

The sets and costumes and are of a high standard, adding greatly to the strong visual appeal of the work. The Vector Wellington Orchestra again provides a grand musical accompaniment.

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