Dance: A no frills kind of a gal

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WITH EIGHTEEN buglers and six drummers, all in military style uniforms, on stage, together with a dozen or more dancers, singers and guitarists, not to mention a large white horse and his rider, one can hardly call the unusual Carmen at Sadler's Wells this week a one man show. But in a very real sense it is.

The one man is Salvador Tavora, a former bullfighter turned theatre director. Annoyed at the annexation of Carmen's story by the French (Merimee's novel and Bizet's opera), he has gone back to the original story of the gypsy girl from Triana, as told to him in childhood by his great-grandmother. For him, Carmen was an early defender of women's rights, a protector of her fellow workers, a supporter of constitutional reform. Actually not too much of this comes over on stage, but it impelled his treatment of the subject in terms of Andalusian folk art.

Tavora is also responsible for the musical arrangement, the choreography and the setting, and when the company took its curtain calls I realised that he was also the best of the singers, a compelling little 65-year- old who involves himself passionately in the action, makes every word clear (even if, being Andalusian slang, I could follow them only from the helpful programme notes) and conveys the moods marvellously.

The songs do most to tell the story, with the dancers providing not much more than an illustration of what we are being told. Partly that is because Tavora's wish to avoid romanticism has led him to a rather down-to-earth leading couple: Lalo Tojada as Carmen, El Mistela as Don Jose, play the roles as ordinary people, not as heroic types. Also, the steps are not as expressive as might be wished: zapateado (those crackling Spanish stamping footbeats) for an executioner and his victim does not tell us much about either of them.

The horse (ridden by Carmen's new love, a picador) is the show's Unique Selling Point, and most people around me loved him. Well, he dances in a self-conscious way, and Carmen dances with him. But for me this entry was unnecessary, awkward and embarrassing. There is much that is better than the horse in this Carmen.