Carmen

Choreography by Johan Inger, music by George Bizet, Rodion Shchedrin, Marc Álvarez
English National Ballet
Sadler's Wells

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Minju Kang, James Streeter and English National Ballet dancers in Johan Inger's Carmen Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Francesca Velicu as the Boy in Johan Inger's Carmen Credit: Laurent Liotardo
James Streeter as Zuniga, Daniel McCormick and Eric Snyder as Guards in Johan Inger's Carmen Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Minju Kang as Carmen and Sanguen Lee as Manuela in Johan Inger's Carmen Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Minju Kang as Carmen and Rentaro Nakaaki as Don Jose in Johan Inger's Carmen Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Minju Kang as Carmen and Erik Woolhouse in Johan Inger's Carmen Credit: Laurent Liotardo
James Streeter, Minju Kang and Rentaro Nakaaki in Johan Inger's Carmen Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Francesca Velicu and Rentaro Nakaaki in Johan Inger's Carmen Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Rentaro Nakaaki in Johan Inger's Carmen Credit: Laurent Liotardo

Swedish-born choreographer Johan Inger, formerly with Nederlands Dans Theater, then with Cullberg Ballet, has also had an illustrious freelance career. He admits to being influenced by Hans van Manen, William Forsythe, by Jiří Kylián, and that “Mats Ek is like my artistic father.”

Add to that living in Spain for the last fifteen with his Spanish wife, and you have many of the ingredients of his Carmen. His first narrative ballet, it was created in 2015 for Compañía Nacional de Danza in Madrid. It won him the Prix Benois de la Danse.

A contemporary psychological treatment of an old tale of unbridled passion, jealousy and a woman who will not be tied by convention, Inger sees it as a modern tale of male misogyny and domestic violence. The young boy with a football (Francesca Velicu), who observes the goings on, starts out in a white kit and ends in a black one, scarred and tainted by what he has seen. Marked for life?

Rodion Shchedrin’s dance adaptation of Georges Bizet’s music is also brought up to date with an injection of Marc Álvarez’s modern sounds—they fuse beautifully—the beat is great. Stage design from Curt Allen Wilmer and Leticia Ganan AAPEE with estudiodeDos sets the minimalist tone with its nine moveable ‘prism’ columns, under Tom Visser’s dark lighting. The colour scheme is bleak.

Carmen’s red dress is like a red carnation amongst all the doom-laden black. Men in black and white uniform, Torero (Erik Woolhouse), preening in front of a mirror, in shiny sequined black top and leather trousers, but who are the eight men top to toe in black suits and facemasks? I think this must be Dante’s purgatory, or the inferno—I think of Wayne McGregor’s The Dante Project—but I’m wrong.

Metaphors in Inger’s conceptual Carmen, some are Dogs, some are “Shadows”, who increase in the second half, as more and more of them roll across the bare stage in premonition of the dénouement. This is about Don José’s psyche, about his story, based more on Prosper Mérimée’s original novella than on the opera, the programme notes tell us. Yet, I don’t see that emphasis. It still feels like Carmen’s tale, and of course the music leads on that score. The orchestra goes hell for leather with the overture, my notes tell me. Musical motifs and repetitions find parallels in repetitive dance movement.

The first night cast is mostly Soloists, Junior Soloists and First Artists, with a scattering of the more experienced amongst the Cigarreras, and Manuela, whom Carmen slashes across the cheek, is played by Principal Sanguen Lee, who has little to do. Their dancing is fiercely committed and fresh, and it’s commendable to put the youngsters to the test, but they don’t have the presence to pull off the fiery drama yet.

Minju Kang‘s Carmen and Rentaro Nakaaki’s Don José duet and spar with amazingly articulate limbs in torrid sexual scenes—his intoxicated solo is good but cold—but they could look to James Streeter (a confident cock of the walk Zuniga whom José shoots) for powerful acting. There’s shouting (the tobacco girls sing "Toreador" feebly) and lots of running about, but the tension is slack.

Grounded contemporary dance and classical extensions, with not a toe shoe in sight, fifty minutes first half, thirty-five the second, Carmen leaves me half full, half empty. It is its UK première, so maybe another viewing is necessary. But, the new musical score, cinematic in scope—the parade of the cigarette girls could be a fashion catwalk, hips swinging to an industrial beat—captivates me.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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