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A Bullseye

Carmen” has been in the air this year. Especially at the Kimmel Cultural Campus. Almost as a prelude to the Philadelphia Ballet’s “Carmen,” the Philadelphia Orchestra presented choreographer Brian Sanders’ aerial play on Rodion Shchedrin’s 1967 “Carmen Suite” (created for his wife, the Bolshoi’s Maya Plisetskaya) last March at Verizon Hall. Sanders’ version, with life-sized dueling bulls dangling over the orchestra as Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted, was phenomenally daring and often comical. It all happened down the block from the venerated Academy of Music, also part of the campus where Ángel Corella unveiled his new full-length ballet,Carmen.”

Performance

Philadelphia Ballet: “Carmen”

Place

Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 5-15, 2023

Words

Merilyn Jackson

Nayara Lopes, Jack Thomas, and artists of the Philadelphia Ballet in “Carmen,” choreography by Angel Corella. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

Corella celebrates ten years as the Philadelphia Ballet’s artistic director, and his first choreography on them  is an earthy, steamy and, for me, an all too short version. It opened a two-weekend run last week to inaugurate the 60th anniversary of the company Barbara Weisberger, a Balanchine protégé, founded in 1963. 

Corella held the upper hand in developing the terrific scenery, mostly of simulated horizontal wood screens. Enhanced by Nick Kolin’s lighting design, these could be repositioned into everything from back drops for the factory, to bedroom walls to a prison cell. And that is where we first see the disgraced Don José (Sterling Baca) in a flashforward.

Four different casts give eight of his soloists marquee roles and two performance opportunities each, while rotating the rest of the large company on other nights. I saw the fourth cast with the sensational Dayesi Torriente dancing Carmen. We see her briefly behind the prison walls, in shadow in blood red Volantes, the tiered ruffles of the most extravagant flamenco costumes. But in the next scene she shoots out from the wings in grand jeté, stripped from the ruffles like a crimson arrow. Her legs, like hands on a clock, were perfectly horizontal at a quarter to three. Her superhuman ballon lands her down stage center, proving dancers don’t always need flying rigs to be airbound.

The ballet loosely follows the Prosper Mérimée/Bizet story, but with no standard edition of the opera, Corella and the Ballet’s Orchestra conductor, Beatrice Jona Affron, teamed with principal pianist Martha Koeneman, freely mining Bizet’s score for the danciest sections. They added a section from another of Bizet’s works, L'Arlésienne. “So much in opera is not sung,” Affron said during a rehearsal break. “The tenor solo is now taken by the cellist and the flower song is a pas de deux, but the Toreador song is quite intact.”

Nayara Lopes and artists of Philadelphia Ballet in “Carmen,” choreography by Angel Corella. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

They also added castanets and a cajón box, a Peruvian percussion instrument now used in flamenco, but it’s also a term for the individual pen in which the bull waits to be released into the bullring. It’s a booming sound to hear from the orchestra pit and fit the work well. There were also sections with rhythmic palmas and jaleos from the corps that encourage flamenco dancers.

Other than the disappointment of not seeing the dancers using the castanets and nor seeing the Matador Escamillo (Yuval Cohen) perform flashy Verónicas or Reboleras with his cape, the action was gripping throughout. The choreography was perfectly matched to the music, feet beating in the air and on the floor to each note. The staging (on which Corella prides himself) was superb with groupings that filled the space without ever looking crowded. Also evident is the crisp and astonishingly wide-ranging look the company  has developed during his tenure.

Back to Don José’s foreshadowing moments in prison. Baca stands, stretching his arms above his head to form a muscular and angular diamond as if his wrists were bound. It is both sensuous and anguished. By the time we get back to the beginning, we see Carmen is her own worst enemy. She’s enraged by Fernanda (Alexandra Heier) a country girl, who Don Jose’s mother wants him to marry, and slashes her face with a knife. The other factory women break into opposing camps, doing a form of flamenco golpe—a stomp with the whole foot flattened. Carmen is arrested and placed before Don Jose who is easily seduced by her whispered sexual innuendos.

He has her released and before long, the scenery enlarges to a bed under the stars. Torriente straddles Baca’s almost nude body with its rippling torso and soon arms and legs slither in every direction in one of the most beautiful and nearly realistic love-making scenes I’ve seen on stage.

Arian Molina Soca in “Carmen,” choreography by Angel Corella. Photo by Alexander
Iziliaev

In the ball scene, Carmen/Torriente appears in a pink and white Bata de cola—a dress with a tail or what we might call a short train. It shows off her lewd en pointe balanceo y vaivén (swaying of the hips.) It’s here that Carmen has sex for sale up against the wall with the General (Pau Pajol) Don Jose’s superior. For this, Don Jose kills him and becomes a fugitive. 

In Act Two, Carmen has lured Don Jose/Baca into her band of mountain smugglers, the only path left for him as a military deserter. Other bandits join Baca—Federico D’Ortenzi, Isaac Hollis, Nicholas Patterson, Javier Rivet and Jack Sprance, all of whom take spectacular solos of grand and tour jetés, barrel turns, and multiple fouetté turns, one of many moments that brought spontaneous applause. A favorite movement section of mine was an equine dance where the men canter and gallop as if on horseback. Very effective.

Nayara Lopes and Arian Molina Soca of Philadelphia Ballet in “Carmen,” choreography by Angel Corella. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev.

The famous Habanera, Carmen’s song about love’s unvanquishable power follows and Escamillo enters all bravado and Carmen falls, fatally in love with him. The bedroom scene with Cohen’s Escamillo is decidedly less heated from his side, though Carmen uses all her wiles on him. Don Jose catches them en flagrante and plunges his sword once more into a hapless lover. But Carmen never lets her air of defiance deflate lunging at Don Jose in anger with deep fish dives and attempting to wriggle away the next. She pays for it with Don Jose’s blade. By now he is a serial killer and the cajón booms as he carries her lifeless body up to an altar tenderly agonizing over her.

“I never wanted to consider myself a choreographer,” Ángel once said. But Carmen captivated him as this production will you. He’s found his rubio—the ideal point for the matador to place his final, killing sword blow.

Merilyn Jackson


Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.

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