When Ashley Page leaves the Royal Ballet to become Scottish Ballet's director, he'd do well to hold on to his predecessor's Carmen in case of a box office slump. Woking's theatre was not only packed, because Carmen is that kind of title; but the audience was also rapturous, because Carmen is that kind of ballet – accessible without being cheap. Robert North's production returns to Méri-mée original novella and opts out of Bizet's music, which is an interestingly fresh angle. And it tells its story in flashback, through deftly compressed, lean scenes that use simple, semi-abstract means imaginatively.
As always, North's choreography represents a pleasant and non-threatening modernism, guaranteed not to frighten the crankiest theatregoer. It may not offer the most exciting challenge to the dancers; it may, on the whole, be rather undemanding to watch. But it is aesthetically agreeable, and subtle in its absorption of Spanish elements. It also achieves real intensity in the final, fatal duet, in which agonised mime becomes part of the dance.
That said, it must be admitted that character portrayal is not one of the ballet's strengths. North concentrates on narrative incident rather than psychological depth, and any acting is strictly prescribed in the dance steps. So although Luca Martini and Elena Schneider are both physically alluring in the leads, there is little to differentiate them from the other soldiers or factory girls and ladies of Seville, apart from the obvious fact that most of the events happen to them. This makes Carmen a rather sanitised figure, standing out in the ensembles not so much through her distinctive attitude as through her scarlet costume.
The ensembles are an effective, dominant feature, beautifully performed by the cast: from the women's dance in the cigarette factory, patterned with the gestures of their work, to the inspired scene of Don José's escape, he and Carmen threading through criss-crossing groups of soldiers and townspeople.
There are also unexpectedly original touches that stand out like vignettes, such as the quartet of women tossing a rag doll, which directly quotes a Goya painting. Or a stylised trio of travellers moving with the galloping rhythms of their invisible mounts before being robbed by Carmen and her fellow bandits. Then there's the striking solo for Carmen's last lover, Lucas (Glauco Di Lieto), which has him wielding a giant toothpick – except that it's actually a banderilla, symbolising the picador that he is.
The cleverly minimalist design consists of wooden tables, regularly rearranged or upended to create different settings: a factory, a bullring with spectators, a tavern, the banks of the Guadalquivir. Luisa Spinatelli's costumes are lovely, evocative yet unfussy, while Christopher Benstead's score is a proud and varied achievement, if you don't expect raw flamenco. Instead, he filters Spanish rhythms and tonalities through an expanded Scottish Ballet Orchestra and two operatic singers (Nichola Jolley and Stephen Wells), whose lyrics are based on gypsy poetry.
This wonderfully integrated production was originally created for the Gyor Ballet in 1997. If it doesn't stay with Scottish Ballet, North should find a whole lot of companies who are only too keen to take it on.
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