The Royal Ballet’s decision to include mixed programmes in their ROH Live season for the first time is arguably a bold one, and I hope it pays off in their cinema audience figures. This, their first of two this season, was a particularly exciting prospect for me as it meant four works I’d never seen before.
The programme starts at a fast and furious pace with Liam Scarlett’s Viscera (another premier, as the first non-narrative work to be live screened by the RB). Scarlett’s sharp, springy choreography reflects the complex, jazzy melodies of Lowell Liebermann’s piano concerto – different groups move in time to different rhythms, dancers arch their backs to the beat one after the other and arms are held at 90 degree angles in a stylised fifth position, creating a unique upper body profile. It’s hard to imagine a work more ideally suited to Laura Morera, who is as exact and energetic as ever. The minimalist costuming – plain leotards – and lack of set means there is absolutely nowhere for the dancers to hide (not that there’s any need).
Relief from the blistering pace of the first and third sections is provided in the form of a pas de deux danced by Ryoichi Hirano and Marianela Nunez. Unfortunately, the live feed chose this moment to cut out – probably because of the cursed British weather – and refused to revive for about two minutes. What I did see of the duet is a jaw-dropping combination of control and trust, as Nunez and Hirano execute some incredible lifts and sustain the slow, gradual style that contrasts so well with the rest of the work. Props also need to go to Nunez for dancing two incredibly different works in one night – but more on Carmen later.
Next to take to the stage is Vadim Muntagirov and Sarah Lamb in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun. This duet is set in a rehearsal studio and provides an interesting (if dramatised) window into the world of a dancer. It begins languidly, with Muntagirov stretching to Debussy’s dreamy music in a pool of light – Lamb enters and they begin to dance together. Rather than choreographic brilliance, the main focus here is building a relationship between two characters – from initial shy recognition, to flirtatious interaction, to a final kiss.
Cleverly, Robbins uses the fourth wall as the dancers’ mirror, meaning that they spend most of the piece looking out at the audience – a reversal of the customary gaze. Muntagirov and Lamb begin by looking at themselve constantly in the mirror as they move, a gentle pastiche of ballet dancers’ self-awareness/vanity, but as the piece develops they catch the other’s eye and begin to dance with heightened self-consciousness. When they finally dance together, they continue to watch themselves admiringly. (Can’t say I blame them – they make a very attractive couple. I never realised what doe eyes Sarah Lamb has until now.) Additional realistic touches – Muntagirov’s stretches, pliés at the barre and Lamb dipping her pointes into an imaginary tray of rosin before entering the studio – all contribute to the feeling that these characters and their relationship are real, in spite of the dreamy, romantic atmosphere. Quite a feat in 11 minutes.
Also lasting a mere 11 minutes, the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux marks another dramatic change of style. George Balanchine choreographed this classical pas de deux to music Tchaikovsky originally composed for Swan Lake (which is now cut from most versions). Steven McRae and Iana Salenko are a natural pairing – they take to Balanchine’s showy choreography like ducks to water, performing a duet and two solos that have more sparkle than a firework display. Let me fangirl here for a moment – McRae’s leaps, beaten jumps, fouettés and pirouettes en l’air are amazing. The final coda is truly dazzling, and includes several fish dives that Salenko actually jumps into. Understandably, it brings the house down.
And now it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the finale, the brand new work, the showpiece giving this programme its hashtag. In the filmed preamble, Carlos Acosta stated that he wanted his adaptation of Carmen to be not just a ballet, but a fusion of genres – including contemporary, flamenco and musical theatre – that would give the audience a sexier, more dramatic version of Bizet’s opera. (This rang alarm bells in my head.)
The opening scene – which eventually begins after a sustained, tension-building blackout – introduces us to Carmen (Marianela Nunez), frolicking in a bar with several men. This bad behaviour starts a brawl and leads to her arrest by upright soldier Don Jose (Acosta), who is tasked with guarding her jail cell. But it’s clear that wily Carmen is no prisoner – even in chains, she dances outside the cell bars to Habanera, slowly tying Don Jose in knots and slipping her wrists free with a triumphant flourish. It’s not the most sophisticated visual imagery, but it establishes the relationship well enough. Carmen’s friends then appear and try to force Don Jose to desert the army and become a rebel – they strip him of his uniform and repeatedly force a gun into his hands, and when his strength is failing Carmen steps in and uses her charms to deliver the final blow. Their ensuing duet is meant to portray the love that has (suddenly) appeared between them, but fails to conjure up any feeling of romance. This is partly because Acosta’s choreography clashes with Bizet’s gentle flute solo – particularly the end of the duet, when the lovers literally roll around on the floor – and partly because we’ve just seen Don Jose get conditioned into feelings for Carmen.
In contrast, Carmen’s duet with the swaggering, charismatic toreador Escamillo is brimming with sexual tension. Here the choreography fits Bizet’s music, and the chemistry between Nunez and Federico Bonelli (irresistibly suave) amplifies the passionate duet. It’s a much more convincing and compelling relationship than Carmen and Don Jose, which is definitely not the right way round. In fact, I found it difficult to have much sympathy for Don Jose – yes, he gets brainwashed by the rebels, but he forces a wedding ring onto Carmen’s finger when she clearly wants freedom, with dire consequences.
There are plenty of things that I do like about this production though. Using singers from the Royal Opera onstage brings added life and colour to certain scenes – the Toreador Song is much better with voices – and it’s a nice nod to the origins of the work. The dark presence of Fate (Matthew Golding) as a horned man lurking in the background adds an ominous sense of foreboding. After the gypsy woman sees Carmen’s death in her tarot cards, Fate enters and gores the heroine with his horns like a bull, spelling out her doom.
In a bar scene, the corps de ballet come to the fore in a lively flamenco-inspired number with onstage guitarists, rhythmic clapping and dancing on tables. Seated in a circle, they circle their arms and strike the floor in rapid succession. It’s a little bit Don Quixote, but the black catsuit costumes and elements of musical theatre choreography also make it feel a bit Chicago. That is until the corps strip down to their underwear – no, I am not exaggerating – when it all starts to look like a lingerie ad. Carmen spends half her time onstage in a revealing lace leotard, having had her dress ripped off. It’s all very unsubtle – so much so that several people at my cinema walked out.
The staging of the ballet’s final scene is suitably dramatic though. Fatally stabbed by Don Jose, Carmen is laid out centre stage. The ring of light that has provided a backdrop is lowered horozontally, encircling her. Characters gather and look on as Fate steps into the ring, drapes her lifeless body over his shoulders like a cape, and slowly exits.
Overall, the last work in this mixed bill is my least favorite. Marienala Nunez is one feisty, sexy Carmen but even she can’t redeem the choreographic mess that results from trying to splice classical and contemporary styles together. It’s as if Acosta couldn’t make up his mind which approach to try, and ended up throwing everything but the kitchen sink at one hour of ballet.
Critical as I’ve been though, there’s no point denying that Carlos Acosta is an incredibly talented man. At the curtain, the entire company gathered onstage to wish him farewell after his last main stage performance with the Royal Ballet – flowers were thrown, speeches were made and tears were shed. It was humbling to be able to share in such a special night, saying goodbye to my first Siegfried, first Romeo, first des Grieux and first Colas.
It’s been a pleasure watching you dance, Carlos. (I’ll forgive you for Carmen.)