As bells sounded the theme opening Georges Bizet’s Carmen Suite, Simon Le Borgne sat slumped on an exercise ball, facing upstage, his head drooped so low he appeared in the spotlight as an almost headless Don José. Others entered, including Ida Viikinkoski as M., Don José’s betrothed. Trying to conjure him awake with sharp motions that ticked like a clock, she left him to the battalion of soldiers, lining up to serve as his firing squad. The effect was one of a bad dream, a premonition that was both the beginning and ending of Mats Ek’s “Carmen,” created for Cullberg Ballet in 1992 and performed by the Paris Opera Ballet on May 11, 2022, at Palais Garnier.
The sounds of a gregarious party quickly shifted the mood as the women spilled on in ruffled, metallic dresses in shades of green, gold, and blue. Covering lots of ground and manipulating the men, they swept and glittered across the stage creating the a raucous environment for our first glimpse of Carmen, danced by sujet Letizia Galloni. She argued audibly with Dancaire the smuggler, danced by Takeru Coste, before slipping away toward a large looming set piece. Designed by Marie-Louise Ekman, it looked like a polka-dotted fan with a narrow slit for a doorway. Galloni stopped at the threshold and put her hand up to light Le Borgne’s cigar.
That spark became a motif, igniting an unwelcome passion inside Don José and setting the story in motion. Soon after, the entire stage filled with smoke when the ensemble of men struck their matches upon the opening note of Carmen’s theme song. Galloni moved confidently among them, with leaps, kicks, and Ek’s signature deep plies. Looking each and every one up and down with an unblinking gaze, she moved her hands and arms in a peekaboo fashion, opening and closing them in front of her face.
Later, Carmen lit up her own cigars. Florent Melac, as the bullfighter Escamillo, danced for her; in turn, she sat on the ball and blew smoke in his face. Even in the brief mimed wedding scene, Don Jose carried the bouquet while Carmen dangled a cigar. Smoking just as the men do set her apart, symbolizing her defiance right up until her end.
In most versions, there is so much romanticizing of the relationship between Don José and Carmen and even more manhandling of her by him, as his jealousy grows, that the story can become overwrought as it progresses toward the tragic ending. But in this version, Carmen shrugged Don José off quickly and seemed to wrestle more with the train of her own dress than with him. Making her way out of that tortured solo with a lit cigar, Galloni puffed on it in the moments before Don Jose jumped out to stab her. In short order, the firing squad was back for him, for real this time, and Don Jose fell to the ground slowly with the final notes from the orchestra.
But that last image of Carmen—composed, powerful, smoking—is what lingers.
In January of 2016, it was reported that Mats Ek would no longer create new works and would remove his repertory from companies all over the world. Explaining the decision to Roslyn Sulcas in The New York Times he said, “For the next two years, I am making a definite stop to performance and production and selling my works. I have made this decision in order to get off the road, off the spinning wheel, to sense an experience of what it is not to have things waiting ahead . . . If I want to come back to work with stage art in various forms after this experience of otherness, I will,” he added. “And if not, I won’t.”
Lucky for us, he did choose to come back to the stage. After intermission, we saw the two new works he created for Paris Opera Ballet in 2019: “Another Place,” a duet that is a sort of sequel to “Place” (which was choreographed in 2007 for Ana Laguna and Mikhail Baryshnikov), and “Boléro,” a large ensemble work set to Maurice Ravel’s iconic score.
“Another Place,” performed by étoiles Alice Renavand and Mathieu Ganio to the music of Franz Liszt, journeyed back and forth in the relationship of a couple, expressing all the turmoil, passion, humor, disappointments, and small moments of care that bond two people over time and space. All while covering immense amounts of space—the wings eventually opened up and the back wall was exposed, revealing the enormity of the Palais Garnier stage. At one point, the back wall even lifted to unveil a gilded practice studio. The pair drifted so far away their bodies were like small flecks drifting in a constellation of memories that make up a life together, tiny forms reflected back at us in the studio mirror.
Just as Ek’s detailed and quirky choreography gave a heightened awareness of percussion in Bizet’s Carmen Suite, from the first entrance in “Another Place” his choices gave new definition to Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor. Ganio walked onstage while the house lights were still on, audience engrossed in intermission chatter. At the sound of the first note on the piano, he looked over his shoulder, toward the musician. An acknowledgment, perhaps, that this sound was triggering a reverie. He walked briskly over to a table and played big exaggerated notes with his arms. When Renavand entered, their hands slid over the table, they danced short vignettes, and played the piano together.
Throughout they also made the most of their drab attire—taking off his jacket and her cardigan, his glasses, their shoes—and a large red carpet that had also been part of the set for “Place”—rolling up in it and out of it into the orchestra pit, hiding under it, and wearing it like a cape for two, a pair of Olympians on a victory lap.
On repeat, she twirled him around, his arm like a revolving door she pushed. He picked her up and flipped her in an effortless cartwheel. Here they were youthful and in the throes of courtship; a moment later, at a different stage of their relationship, with Renavand assuming an arabesque and Ganio pressing her overhead twice only for her to collapse out of it. They continued on as if trying to grasp something that had slipped out of their hands until they were momentarily out of gas, Ganio lying downstage, and Renavand leaning into the wings. In the first of several incidences, stage hands came out and reset the table, collected their belongings, and helped them dress.
This theatrical conceit was akin to breaking the 4th wall; and by letting the audience witness what is normally backstage and offstage, we were made complicit. The rollercoaster of emotions they conveyed, which were multi-faceted and never singular—happy and exasperated, resigned but still silly, devastated and in love—were transferred onto us and left their impression long after they moved on. Ultimately, they were escorted from the stage, Renavand guided stage left and Ganio taken off to the right. This matter of fact parting was a fitting end to a dance that could have been endless and infinite, had it not been so human.
The table reset itself on its own and the work lights came up. A man in a white suit and hat—the choreographer’s brother Niklas Ek—walked on with a bucket of water and poured it into a white tub recently set upstage left. Dancers in black hooded jumpsuits wandered on to warm up. The carpet was rolled up and carted off, the back wall lowered, and the musicians began to casually enter the pit. These tasks let us know this was a transition to “Boléro.” The dancers gathered upstage left, a spotlight dropped onto the tub, and the group stared as Ek returned with another bucket, cuing the music to begin.
The clump of dancers walked to the beat of the drum, and seemed to breathe as one in their movements. Solos, and pairs, trios, and small groups peeled off, as the group covered the stage, correlating with the melody passing along to different instruments. Their moves followed the arcing trajectory of an arm with the whole body, exploded into the air, their hands expressive and bodies supple. All the while the delivery of water, one bucket of time, continued unabated.
Just as the musical composition is hypnotic in its repetition, the momentum of the dancing and the relentless delivery of water, set a similar spell. Throughout, large black squiggles descended one by one from the rafters, again, seemingly attuned to new instruments folding into the composition. It wasn’t until the end that I realized they might have been abstract drawings of a face in profile—perhaps the the face of Niklas Ek, only seen in profile schlepping buckets. The ensemble bounced off the back wall and crawled downstage, and also occasionally showed off virtuosic steps like a perfect double tour. Their command of Ek’s movement style was a testament to the long relationship between the choreographer and the company. While staying cool and mostly abstract, some of the duets played with psychological dynamics between lovers: one over eager, another dismissive, all just a little bit mischievous and up to something.
As the orchestra revved up near the end, four men picked up Ek, put the bucket on his head, and carried him off screaming. But he returned. Another quartet, dragged him off again, this time off stage right. And still, he made an invisible cross over and returned, this time with two buckets. I wondered if it was all a reference to the choreographer coming back to his work on the stage after some years away. The final cymbal crashed and Ek tossed himself into the tub, making a big splash as the dancers threw themselves to the ground. He took the final curtain calls of the evening dressed in a bathrobe.