Compañía Nacional de Danza
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
April 15, 2022
Given the number of choreographed incarnations of Carmen that there have been over the years, creating something original is a difficult assignment. In his version, presented at the Joyce last week by Compañía Nacional de Danza, Swedish choreographer Johan Inger succeeds in creating a distinctive, if not totally unique, Carmen. My overall take on it is positive, but it took awhile to overcome, or at least overlook, perceived initial flaws and appreciate the very qualities that make it different.
Carmen originated as an opera score created by Georges Bizet, based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. The opera premiered in Paris in 1875. As dance, perhaps the most well-known versions are those created by Roland Petit in 1949, first performed by Petit’s wife, Zizi Jeanmaire, and Carmen Suite, choreographed by Alberto Alonso, first performed in 1967 in Moscow by Maya Plisetskaya, the wife of Rodion Schedrin, who arranged Bizet’s score. Inger created his version, which premiered in Madrid, in 2015 (the same year that Carlos Acosta created his version, and one year after Dada Masilo created hers). Among other honors, Carmen earned Inger the Benois de la Danse 2016 Prize. This week’s Joyce Theater program was its New York City premiere.
I disliked this somewhat off-putting form of Carmen through the first half of its first Act. Then I began to understand what Inger was doing – or thought I did – and even though it’s not my cup of tea, to like a lot of it. The energy and commitment of the company’s dancers (and particularly the ferocity of Kayoko Everhart’s Carmen), as well as Curt Allen Wilmer’s ingenious set design, made it impossible not to like.
The story, as well as Bizet’s original score, are familiar and iconic. But neither the story nor Bizet’s music is the driving force here. In Inger’s concept, what drives this Carmen is sex, violence, and death, displayed here far more graphically than would be an iteration that originated in the U.S. Artistically, as I’ve mentioned in prior reviews, U.S. audiences are far more conservative than their European counterparts, and U.S. artists generally cater to audience preferences by toning down those same qualities that are emphasized here. This Carmen is contemporary European to its core. That doesn’t make it bad – it just makes it a bit tougher for regular dance-going audiences (e.g., moi) to get used to and accept.
Inger’s version began with Bizet’s famous arias being piped through the Joyce Theater speakers. [The equivalent, with a live orchestra, as an overture.] Then, as the familiar music ends, a smallish sexually ambivalent looking young character, dressed like a youngster preparing for a soccer match, is seen in front of the curtain bouncing a ball. The curtain rises to reveal what appeared to me to be a locker room at some athletic stadium. The boy bounces the ball against the “lockers” (with increasing force, as if trying to break down some wall), and then is suddenly confronted by an ominous-looking man in black, with whom the boy reluctantly shares the ball, only to have this man in black toss it aside – and into the way of an incoming man dressed like a policeman or security guard, along with three of his underlings in shirt and pants. The boy runs off; the added “guards” dance somewhat purposefully. As the lead guard stands between two locker pillars (perhaps in an entryway to the stadium seating area), men dressed like “players” enter the room and roughhouse.
That’s all prologue. Thereafter the real performance begins, with a phalanx of women emerging from out of nowhere (as I recall from behind the “lockers”), very obviously sexually voracious and dressed to impress each man in the room. [I’ve read that these women are supposed to be prostitutes, but I didn’t get that at all; to me they were women for whom sex was a primal urge, not necessarily something that genteel society might frown upon.] A woman in red was among them. She (the one the audience later learns is Carmen) approaches the guard, runs her hands all over him seductively, eventually earning a response. He and she leave the viewing area (go behind the lockers), and then separately return – and the guard very obviously satisfied, pulls his pants zipper up. And then Carmen turns her attentions to Don José.
That’s about as subtle as this Carmen iteration gets.
I won’t continue with a blow-by-blow description. Suffice it to say that the dance follows the basic story, except for the invention of Boy, the Shadows (there were more than the one man in black referenced above), and a few isolated characters or groups of them – in other words, most everyone except those central to the story: Carmen, Don José, and Escamillo. And while the opera largely takes place in a cigarette factory, I saw no such indication here.
Boy’s purpose is not completely clear, but it’s apparent that his reappearance at critical moments throughout the piece places him as either a “young” Don José (an innocent, who sees his future life ruined because of what his adult self does), or some naif-like observer. That Boy is portrayed by a particularly youthful-looking company dancer (Shani Peretz, who did a fine job with the puzzling character), and apparently often – or always – is danced by a young girl, does not appear to have any particular significance. The Shadows are as one might anticipate – Fate figures who don’t so much direct the course of action as know what that action will be and taunt Boy and other characters with their insidious, and at times gleefully sinister, foreknowledge.
My quarrel with this Carmen at the outset was the result of a combination of factors: I disliked the music – not the music credited in the program to both Bizet and to Schedrin’s adaptation for Carmen Suite, but, I deduced, the more contemporary-sounding “original music” by Marc Alvarez; the lack of clarity as to what Inger was trying to accomplish; the overbearing sexuality; and the choreography for most everything.
But as the piece progressed, I thought I saw at least some of Inger’s reasoning.
Inger has borrowed some concepts from Carmen Suite. In large part he uses the score adapted by Schedrin, and he adopts his “Shadows” from a similar (but singular) “Death” figure (“Fate” in Alonso’s version), but mostly he turns that version inside out. What I initially saw as an athletic stadium (soccer, in view of the ball and the initial appearance of older “players” in soccer-team-like outfits), becomes, as in Alonso’s version, a bullring, but the stage view is of its inner guts rather than the bullring itself. What I envisioned as “lockers” are, at least initially, the reverse of the walls that surround the bullring in Alonso’s version. And instead of focusing on visualizing passion, the basis for more “standard” versions (including Alonso’s), Inger exposes the story’s component parts: the forces behind the themes of sex, violence and death that to a large extent inhabit and compete within the passion displayed in other versions. The result is a reconstructed Carmen that breaks its component parts into competing forces, and that focuses on visualizing those component parts, as well as on the psychological motivations that prompt Don José to act as he does.
In addition to adding a different slant to the usual story, Inger appears to draw a choreographic contrast between the “supplemental” or adapted music and the Bizet. Generally, when the music was more recognizable, the choreography (though far different from other versions) was recognizable too: that is, more in line with expectations for contemporary choreography. And when the music was supplemented by something that sounded very different from Bizet’s original (and Schedrin’s adaptation), the choreography looked different too: at times looking like an aggressive, angular hodgepodge, but more often resembling much of the better pieces I’ve seen from Nederlands Dans Theater and NDT2 (companies in which Inger danced and/or that nourished his choreography), although not sharing the quality of humanity and relationship description in the early choreography of Jiri Kylian – though admittedly neither “relationships” nor a sense of humanity are relevant in this Carmen.
Regardless of its genesis, it’s undeniable that Inger’s choreography here is overwhelmingly powerful and intense – which, considering what I see as Inger’s artistic motivation, is essential to his piece. This isn’t only the Carmen story – which, although modified, is what Inger is using as a vehicle. Rather, it’s a conflict of primal forces: sex, violence, and death. The women move as a unity, a force, demanding sexual satisfaction. They act and dance consistent with this – it’s a “given,” and the only thing unusual about it is that the focus here is on free-spirited women rather than men, and that it’s as explicit as it is. Hands (female) roam over bodies (male), and at times reaching beneath men’s upright bodies to appear to be playing with the men’s genitalia. There’s no subtlety. [Curiously, with respect to the specific dance scene described above and reacted to so viscerally, it’s something one sees at every performance of George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son (which was created while he was with the Ballet Russes), which includes almost identical visual imagery, but between men (albeit, effectively, aliens: strangers from a strange land).]
The other forces are violence and death: the manifestations of Don Jose’s jealousy (matched, to a lesser degree, by the jealousy of Zuniga (the police or security guard senior to Don José) when he learns of Don José’s dalliance with Carmen; and by Escamillo, who’s jealousy takes the form of arrogance, and who accordingly exhibits pleasure in taking Carmen from Don José (ignoring that that’s what Carmen wanted at that point in time). And of course this is echoed in the Shadows / Death Figures, who concurrently know what will happen in the future and perhaps set the events in motion that would lead to it.
I must emphasize also that Wilber’s set design, abetted by Tom Visser’s lighting, is staged (essentially, choreographed) brilliantly, and is as strong a contributing factor to the dance’s success as Inger’s concept and choreography. The “lockers” separate, more clearly becoming the inside walls of a stadium or bullring, and then move to various positions on stage (pushed, visibly, by dancers), at time becoming doors, and revealing mirrors that amplify what’s in front of them. And they were a vital part of Act II, when Inger’s choreography focuses on Don José’s inner torment before he kills Carmen.
The performances, most of which might be considered over the top, are consistent with the thrust of Inger’s Carmen. The women are mini-Carmens – equally as sexually predatory, but their connections are not conveyed with any emphasis. Alessandro Riga’s Don José was the most complex of those on stage (actually, the only character that wasn’t cardboard), and he pulled off the many facets of his role admirably. Escamillo (danced by Alvaro Madrigal) was as self-absorbed and clueless here as he usually is portrayed. And those characters with more limited featured roles (Toby William Mallitt’s Zuniga (the Lieutenant Dragoon to Don José’s Corporal in the original) conveyed that character’s arrogance, and Elisabet Miosca did the same for Manuela (not an original character), the leader of the women and a featured seductress (besides Carmen). But as essential as these characters are, this is Everhart’s dance. Although her role is as relatively one-dimensional as everyone else’s except Don José (she wants what and who she wants when she wants it), her Carmen injected far more than appropriate essential flair, and her romantically portrayed duets with her lover du jour added a semblance of that missing passion to this passionless piece. Everhart lit up the stage when the choreography focused on her.
Which segues into the direction this company is taking under its still relatively new artistic director, former NYCB Principal Joaquin De Luz. I can’t comment on the company’s situation before De Luz took it over, and this Carmen premiered during a prior administration. I’m also aware that the company was led for a considerable period of time by Nacho Duato, and earned a positive international reputation under his leadership. But, at least, De Luz has continued that. His dancers are well-trained and rehearsed, and his choice to bring this Carmen to the Joyce was a good one. We’ll watch as Compañía Nacional de Danza continues to evolve under his leadership, and welcome its return engagement sooner rather than later.