BalletMet – Carmen.maquia
Capitol Theatre at Riffe Center
February 5-14, 2016
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Perhaps even more than Hollywood, the dance world loves remakes. The classics like Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, The Nutcracker and others have seen countless redos, some memorable, others, not-so-much. BalletMet’s production of choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano’s re-envisioned “Carmen” however, was simply unforgettable.
Premiered in Chicago in 2012 by Sansano’s now-defunct Luna Negra Dance Theater, Carmen.maquia is a contemporary dance version of Prosper Mérimée’s familiar story of a beautiful, self-absorbed woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate men to get what she wants. Sansano took inspiration from artist Pablo Picasso’s black and white illustrations created for new editions of Mérimée’s novella in 1948-49 and 1964 for the productions minimalist look with set pieces by Luis Crespo and costumes by David Delfin. The work’s title comes from Picasso’s description of the Spanish temptress as being like an untamable bull and a play on “Tauromaquia,” the Spanish word for bullfighting.
Set to an orchestral version of Georges Bizet’s iconic 1875 score for Carmen the opera, the 2-act dance work told the Carmen story in a non-traditional manner. Sansano’s choreography for it was a bold and quirky mix of seemingly non-stop body contortions and arm movements that wonderfully conveyed action, emotion and intent. For some, Sansano’s approach to telling the Carmen tale and the frenetic movement language used might have gone down the rabbit hole. For the majority attending the February 6 evening performance at Columbus’ Capitol Theatre however, the work wowed with BalletMet’s dancers performing the hell out of it.
Act I began with dancer Jarrett Reimers, a last minute replacement for the injured Gabriel Gaffney Smith, in the role of army officer Don Jose dancing a quiet solo in spotlight. Reimers was surrounded by Crespo’s white set pieces that formed walls and low barriers that at times were collapsed and expanded by the dancers to like an accordion.
The work quickly found its pace when the trio of Adrienne Benz, Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Samantha Lewis burst onto the stage in a barrage of highly animated mini-tantrums all directed at fellow cigarette factory worker Carmen. An even bigger whirlwind was created by dancer Karen Wing as Carmen in a jet black dress with red lips and shimmering hair who swooped in and stole their thunder, immediately riveting audience member eyes on her as she began to scuffle with her adversaries. If there is such a thing as bravura attitude, Wing had it in spades. She was Carmen; a seductress men fall over themselves to be with and women fall over themselves to destroy. Wing’s potent mix of sex appeal and skillful dancing charmed throughout the work.
For his part Reimers danced solidly despite being tossed into the role with only hours of preparation. The tall, blonde 23-year-old offered up a less charismatic and mature Don Jose. His was more an innocent lamb to the slaughter as Carmen’s boy toy, completing a love triangle between his character, Carmen and the toreador Escamillo.
The story unfolded in the first act with Carmen being arrested for fighting with her co-workers and her seducing her jailor Don Jose into releasing her and later shirking his other duties to be with her. In Escamillo, danced with swagger by a slicked-backed-hair Josh Siebel, Carmen found a male version of herself that the village women swooned over.
Amidst all of this wild and delightfully innovative contemporary choreography, Sansano slipped in an equally brilliant balletic respite in the form of Grace-Ann Powers as Micaela, the woman Don Jose should have been giving his heart to. Where Carmen was brash, Powers gave Micaela a soft, ethereal quality. Along with Reimers, she unfurled a long black rope chain supposedly representative of letters his character receives from his mother. The reference was vague at best.
In Act II Don Jose’s jealousy over Escamillo heated up, Carmen foresaw her demise in a hand of oversized Tarot cards and Micaela once more tried to lure Don Jose away in moving duet as Carmen looked on pacing the stage. Reimers’ chemistry with Powers somewhat overshadowed his with Wing with this scene being one of the work’s best. One again Powers captivated, the delicate articulation of her fingers and hands in her dancing was spellbinding.
Don Jose and Carmen’s tumultuous relationship reached its tipping point as the increasingly possessive army officer refused to accept the fiery Carmen’s rejection of him in favor of Escamillo. This powerful scene between Reimers and Wing was their finest as the combative pair embodied their character’s intense emotions with gusto.
Carmen.maquia, as in all “Carmen” productions, concluded with Carmen’s death at the hands of Don Jose. Sansano downplayed the actual deed instead showing Don Jose’s final kiss of death and Carmen lain out on the stage floor. That moment was a bit of let down dramatically. It did however push the emphasis to Don Jose’s guilt, bewilderment and self-loathing over killing Carmen. Reimers, now with a blue blood-stained shirt ─ perhaps alluding to Carmen’s inherent cold-heartedness ─ repeatedly made stabbing motions to his midsection and writhed in pain and anger.
Sansano’s Carmen.maquia was a truly unique take on Mérimée’s tale. It will undoubtedly be a signature work for him. BalletMet’s entire cast was marvelous with its leads, especially Wing and Powers, adding luster to this now golden egg in BalletMet’s repertory.
BalletMet’s Carmen.maquia continues through Sunday, February 14. Capitol Theatre at Riffe Center, 77 S. High Street, Columbus, OH. $29-69. (614) 469-0939, CAPA Ticket Center (39 E. State St.) ticketmaster.com or balletmet.org.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.