Ballet: Modern-day Carmen goes west

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IF CHRISTOPHER Gable had lived to see Northern Ballet Theatre's Carmen he would surely have loved the way it has turned out. He had the initial idea, but then roped in a team of collaborators to develop it: an approach closer to music-theatre or opera, although Gable and NBT have made a speciality of it.

There is a lot to be said for a process in which the choreographer (Didy Veldman) is kept on the right dramatic track by the overseeing eye of a director (Patricia Doyle). Veldman - by day a dancer and choreographer with Rambert Dance Company - has never created a full-length narrative before, but you wouldn't know it. She presents a fresh and entirely believable Carmen whose transposition to modern-day South America is a stroke of inspiration. For a tale of poverty, crime, heat and law-enforcers with strong-arm tactics, Rio de Janeiro fits the bill exactly. As for the anti- heroine herself, Veldman's depiction and Charlotte Broom's enactment fuse potently and realistically.

Carmen is a cigarette packer and small-time criminal, set apart from other pretty low-life girls by her lithe "animality", and an absence of inhibition in aiming for what she wants. She prowls and pounces like a cat - on the floor, on tables, around her victims, all to be caressed by her and conquered. Most of the people around her are crooks or crooked police.

And here is NBT as they have never appeared before, with not a point shoe or entrechat in sight. Instead, Veldman has opted for a contemporary- dance grammar, built out of gesture and movement and carved like calligraphy. She is particularly good at making the dance express feelings or words subtly, without straying into hammy mime. She also takes care to allocate each character their own logical flavour. So Micaela (Fiona Wallis) is all delicate, skimming grace, and her duets with her fiance Jose are full of tenderness. Jose, a police officer (poignantly played by Daniel de Andrade), is quiet and restrained in his movement, making his final explosive solo of extreme shapes and portions seem all the more violently desperate.

Escamillo is a rock star. He strikes rock-star postures, erupts on to stage amid a hail of screams, and in Christopher Giles's interpretation needed more verve to convince us of his glamour. Escamillo brings with him a taped electric-band version of his Bizet music which might have the composer spinning in his grave, but I thought it dramatically effective. The rest of the score, though, arranged by John Longstaff for small orchestra and conducted by John Pryce-Jones, sounded under-powered.

No such reticence from the cast, who take to contemporary dance as if they had never seen a tutu in their lives. Lez Brotherston's sets, locating most of the action around the cigarette factory and in a bar, are an important component, spare yet atmospheric. So is the storytelling, which unfolds in three lean and trenchant acts.