Zoe Ashe-Browne and Dominic Harrison in Ballet Ireland's 'Carmen'.  Photo © Ewa Figaszewska

Zoe Ashe-Browne and Dominic Harrison in Ballet Ireland’s ‘Carmen’.
Photo © Ewa Figaszewska

Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London, UK; June 3, 2014

David Mead

Formed in 1988, Ballet Ireland has established a reputation at home for its staging of successful narrative works and versions of the classics, pared down to fit its resources and touring venues. For their first London appearance, founder and director Anne Maher and her young troupe presented Morgann Runacre-Temple’s take on “Carmen”.

Runacre-Temple’s ballet (her fourth for the company) follows closely Bizet’s 1875 opera of the same title, telling the story of José, a young soldier who becomes infatuated with the gypsy Carmen; an association that finishes up destroying both their lives. The story is told efficiently and simply, and with a welcome absence of any over-the-top affected bluster or Spanish showing-off. She also avoids any stylised mime (hurrah!); everything is natural and unforced.

Although clearly rooted in classical dance, only Carmen and Michaela of the women dance on pointe. Runacre-Temple’s dance vocabulary includes a significant amount of contemporary, often bold, sometimes angular movement, in a mix that is reminiscent of Central European choreographers such as Richard Wherlock at Basel. Like his dance, Runacre-Temple’s combination is always complimentary rather than jarring.

Where this “Carmen” falls down, is in the lack of sensuality. In Act I in particular, sexual chemistry between the main characters just wasn’t there. Zoë Ashton-Browne as Carmen didn’t appear particularly alluring, seductive, teasing or powerful. Dominic Harrison’s José was played nicely innocently, if a little blandly. The dances for the couple did not exactly scream love, sex or anything else. Part of the problem is that Runacre-Temple likes to fill every note with dance, frequently ensemble dance, as she moves the story on apace. The stage always seems to be full and busy. The characters are never really established. Sometimes things need to slow down a little.

Act II, which is far less hectic, which gives time for the leading protagonists to be really seen, and in which it has to be said the whole cast looked less nervous, is noticeably better. The fortune telling scene with the cards was well done, but not half as well as Carmen’s death. When Harrison sliced his blade dramatically across Ashton-Browne’s throat, I’ll swear the whole audience gasped in horror.

The rest of the 13-dancer cast performed well, although some of the ensemble dances were a little less together than they might have been. Many of the problems may well have stemmed from the Baylis stage being somewhat shallower than the set and production was clearly designed for. Things certainly looked squeezed on occasions. Jane Magan was a nicely innocent Michaela, caught up in all the shenanigans, while Lukas Hunt as the toreador, Escmillio, strutted suitably but the choreography gives him little to do.

Ballet Ireland in 'Carmen'.  Photo © Ewa Figaszewska

Ballet Ireland in ‘Carmen’.
Photo © Ewa Figaszewska

Lorna Richie’s straightforward and simple designs compliment the production well. It’s amazing what can be achieved with ten wooden boxes and a large wooden crate that serves as multiple duty as jail, José’s individual prison cell and cigarette factory. Eamon Fox’s lighting is less effective, rarely adding to the atmosphere and certainly never suggesting heat.

This Carmen really scores with the music, which alternates between the well-known “Carmen Suite” reworking of Bizet’s score by Shchedrin, originally created for the 1967 Bolshoi Ballet production “Carmen Suite” and danced by his wife, Maya Plisetskaya; and arrangements for flamenco guitar based on the Bizet, created and performed live by John Walsh. The live guitar adds a sense of dry Spanish heat to scenes, and an element of authenticity. It generally juxtaposes well with the orchestral recording. When it does jar, it has more to do with the switch from live to recorded (or vice-versa) than anything else. The dancers’ palmas and ‘olés’ were fairly predictably unconvincing.

All told, this Carmen does have much going for it. It’s an interesting production that proves you don’t need a huge cast and huge resources to tell a story. Ballet Ireland is a welcome addition to the roster of London ballet visitors. Let’s hope this short two show season visit is not a one-off.

This autumn, Ballet Ireland will be touring “Swan Lake” to numerous venues. See www.balletireland.ie for details.