Last tango in London: The ENO's radical reinterpretation of Carmen has an Argentinian twist

The fortunes of the ENO are riding on the latest production
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of all the ways an opera director might choose to recover at the end of a critical week of rehearsals, dancing the tango for 10 minutes in a silent room must count among the most unusual. It's important, though, to picture it correctly. We're not talking here about the predatory, nostril-flaring histrionics of European ballroom tango. This is tango as danced by everyday folk in the bars and clubs of Buenos Aires – intense in its focus, but quiet, supremely co-operative, even meditative in mood.

"Argentinians describe it as being in a state of deep listening," explains Sally Potter, fresh from her exertions and visibly revived. " Not just listening with your ears, but listening with your body to your partner's body, to be aware of their every intention and subtle shift of weight. It's like a martial art in that way."

English National Opera was thinking a long way outside the box when it asked Potter to direct its coming production of Bizet's Carmen, the opener for a new season that has a great deal of ground to recover after last season's disastrous Kismet. Carmen is box-office central, Carmen is heart-on-sleeve, Carmen is safe and hummable, while Potter's work – most memorably in the films Orlando (1992) and The Tango Lesson (1997) – is restrained and cerebral and art house. "I'd certainly never imagined me and Carmen ever coming together," she says, shaking back a hank of pre-Raphaelite auburn hair.

When ENO offered her the job she prevaricated "in a state of deep crisis " for more than a year. "I felt that I could only do it if I adopted a very radical approach and it became a Carmen that people didn't recognise. They'll recognise the music of course, but the way into it, I felt, had to be the way of a stranger."

Potter had explored that very "way of a stranger" in The Tango Lesson, a film she not only scripted and directed, but in which she also starred. In it she plays herself, a British film-maker, who, struggling with the Hollywood script she is writing, finds herself drawn into the twilight world of tango, falling under the spell of Argentine dancing star Pablo Veron, and eventually making a film – within the film – that charts her fascination both for the dance form and for this younger man. That experience became even more pertinent to the new Carmen when Potter decided to place Veron, both as dance-creator and performer, right at the heart of the staging.

But wait, isn't Carmen set in Spain and tango a dance of Latin America? Has Potter transported the world's favourite cigarette girl to Argentina? " No, not at all. Carmen was written in French by a Frenchman who'd never been to Spain, and we're singing it in English. So there's already been a whole sequence of transpositions.

"What I've done is work with the writer Christopher Cowell to create a translation that makes sense for singing in English. So our Carmen is set in the UK in our own time, and tango, being a dance for two, naturally offers itself as a danced metaphor for all kinds of relationships. The way we're integrating the dance element into Carmen isn't about Argentina or about Spain, or even about life in the UK, but about how individuals relate to each others' bodies and universes. That's the story at the heart of Carmen."

Introducing a dance element into opera has become something of a mission for ENO in recent seasons. Earlier this year even Britten's normally static Death in Venice (a superb critical success) was granted a choreographer. But as Potter points out, "all forms of movement have choreographic intent. My intention with this was to integrate what we think of as dance with what is usually just a body on a stage."

She thought of Pablo Veron early on, and got together with him at his home in France almost a year ago to test her hunch about the music's danceability. He agreed that there are many numbers in Bizet's score, including waltzes and the famous seguidilla, that lend themselves beautifully to the underlying structures of the tango. "Not the popular image of the tango, but the way the body feels in the music," adds Potter.

There are other linking factors, too. Tango has been seen as disreputable at various times

in its history. Bizet's opera is said to have scandalised its first Parisian audiences, although Potter says it's not quite as simple as that. "Some critics at the time didn't like it for what they called its moral turpitude, but others reacted against its musical daring. As well as exploring a moral universe that wasn't family entertainment, Bizet was taking a lot of aesthetic risks.

"He had hopes for Carmen being a universal success, but it never could have been – these were strange sounds to opera-goers in the 1870s. Strange story, strange sounds. Part of my task, as I see it, has been to locate that sense of risk and danger, and restore the opera to its roots."

The presence of Veron in this opera production is guaranteed to set tongues wagging among those who saw and admired him in The Tango Lesson. Although the film charts what is certainly an intense personal relationship between the dancer and the film-maker, and though it leaves no doubt of Potter's utter intoxication with this sleek, and, yes, beautiful younger man, with his penchant for dancing in the kitchen, his bandana and Frank Zappa hair, it's ambivalent about the true state of their relationship. Did they sleep together – either as their characters in the film or in real life? Potter has said that they often meet up in different cities around the world to tango together. So, to put it baldly, are they a couple?

"It depends how you define a couple. Making the film was an extremely intense collaboration, and this is an intense collaboration. The closeness you get in a working relationship is hard to quantify or even describe, and the closest metaphor most people can find is that of a romantic relationship. The real love and connectedness that you have when you create together is just as intense.

"I know it might seem as if I'm fudging the answer but I'm really not. It's taken me up until now in my life to understand, perhaps I don't even yet, how profound a relationship based around work can be."

And Bizet's, or rather his librettist Merimee's cigarette-factory girl, how does she fit in to the picture? Cigarettes, as is only right and proper in Britain in 2007, have nothing to do with it. "What working at a cigarette factory signified at the time was women who operated outside society and outside the law," says Potter. "All I've done is be true to the original librettist's intention, because tango is a dance of equals. The opera will look incredibly different and I predict that traditionalists will be shocked. Perhaps not shocked in the way of Carmen's first audiences, but certainly surprised.

"I'm not looking to cause a lot of harrumphing. What I want is to force people to connect with the profounder themes in the opera, not the chocolate-box clichés. Its proper title is The Tragedy of Carmen, did you know? And its true theme is facing the reality of death."

With that, Potter holds out both arms inviting Pablo Veron to take up his place. And off they go, without music, with only the swish of their soles sliding around the empty room. *

'Carmen' opens at the Coliseum, London, WC2 on Saturday (tel: 0870 145 0200);

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The Meaning of Tango: The Story of the Argentinian Dance by Christine Denniston (Portico Books £9.99)

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Astor Piazolla, A Memoirby Natalio Gorin Amadeus Press (2001)

Official biography of the brillianticonoclast and Argentine hero who revitalised the music of tango,creating Tango Nuevo.

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