The curtain rises on familiar Gades-Saura territory: a mirrored rehearsal- room and girls and men in casual dance-clothes busily marking out routines. They mass into serried ranks and surge forward, feminine heels purring, skirts flicking, wrists snaking about their heads like sleek Medusas air- drying their curls. The men set their faces straight ahead, hands on hips, and let the relentless pounding of their feet speak for them. Antonio Gades himself prowls about scowling and barking one-syllable commands. Is he dance director or army officer? Are they a dance company in rehearsal or workers in a cigarette factory? The Carmen myth and stage-reality are neatly meshed from the start.
Where the film gets sidetracked by its parallel plots, the live show, in the absence of dialogue, remains sharp and compact. A stylised account of the sexually adventurous gypsy girl weaves cleverly in and out of those episodes of relaxed whoopee-making that are flamenco's great party piece: baggy-trousered parodic contributions from wrinkly musicians, a sudden burst of passionate song from a grandmother who then breaks into a gentle, skirt-hoisting jig with noisy encouragements from the whole crew.
In the role of seductress the aptly named Stella Arauzo is dynamite, an inflammatory cocktail of sex and defiance. When she sits, it's with knees splayed, her frilled hem gathered provocatively into a dangling scarlet tail ready to be lashed about her like a whip. When she rises to dance she runs her hands over her own muscular body as if to stoke up its fires. Lip curled in ambition, she stamps and hip-swivels and insinuates her way into the arms of Jose, to luxuriate cat-like in an erotic duet, smooched to Bizet's famous chromatic soprano melody. The show filches brazenly from the opera wherever it fancies. But the transitions from recorded excerpts to live flamenco are brilliantly achieved: dramatic without any sense of strain. On-stage there is virtuoso guitar-strumming, popular chants and pained cante jondo. At times the only sound is the prolonged hammering of heels and hand-claps, or riotous beating on tables.
Supremely sure in its dramatic contrasts and spectacular use of a wide stage, there is surprisingly weak casting in the secondary roles. Carmen's brute of a husband lacks real menace in his stick-fight with Jose; the preening toreador seems too soft to provoke the final murderous showdown. But Gades's Jose is a galvanising force. At 64 he is heavier and stiffer than we remember but still devastatingly fine. His movements are like arrow-shots, pure of line and sure of target. That face, with its brooding almond eyes and gaunt cheeks, holds the show as it did the film. He has been a great, great dancer. He is now a great catalyst.
But don't think that Compana Antonio Gades is chock-full of beautiful people. Its director deliberately plays down the glamour of flamenco and detests virtuosity as a gasp factor. (It's my guess he'd disapprove of Cumbre Flamenca - the company we've seen most frequently over here.) In Carmen the men perform in jeans and jumpers at the risk of effacing their own machismo. Gades clearly believes the dance should speak for itself. In a series of quite unexpected encores, he distils the essence of the entire show into two-minute bursts, ending in an intense confrontation between himself and Arauzo danced in complete silence. You could almost hear your own heart stop beating.
The fortnight's run is sold out and Sadler's Wells is already negotiating a return visit (to its temporary home at the Royalty in the West End, whither it decamps in July for the rebuilding of the Wells). Does Carmen have what it takes to do a Riverdance? To judge by the assorted punters queuing for standing or returns, it just might.
Sadler's Wells, EC1 (0171 713 6000), to Sat.