Carmen with L'arlésienne - Royal New Zealand Ballet
16 February 2017, Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch
Reviewed by Sheree Bright & Angel Stevens
As firefighters battle the blaze on the port hills of Christchurch, the Royal New Zealand Ballet offer generous, blistering performances on the Isaac Theatre Royal stage. They dance on the razors edge of passion, obsession, and deep attachment in two ballets by French choreographer Roland Petit (1924 – 2011). In this New Zealand premiere, both the iconic Carmen (1949) and L’Arlésienne (1974) explore faltering relationships and how, once a romantic connection is formed, detaching from a lover can be painful and downright dangerous.
In a modern setting, the leads in both ballets might relate to their respective lovers ‘I’m just not that into you.’ But things are not that simple in the passionate world of Petit. Luigi Bonino, artistic director of the Roland Petit repertoire, with Gillian Whittingham’s assistance, artfully replicate Petit’s original vision.
In both pieces, the corps de ballet is well-rehearsed and cleanly perform movements allowing Petit’s choreography to shine. His unique style utilises traditional turned out positions frequently intermingled with stylised parallel positions, including flexed foot gesturing. Bold in its time, it continues to fascinate and impress long after the curtain closes.
In the opening ballet, L’Arlésienne, a Van Gogh inspired backdrop by Antoni Clavé depicts the golden fields of Provence, where Frédéri (Shaun James Kelly) and Vivette (Madeleine Graham) are preparing for their wedding. They are accompanied by a supportive community who encircle and encourage the leads, often linking arms and gesturing in unison or canon.
The soloists more than make up for a tentative and somewhat shaky start. (Perhaps due to the enhanced pressure of a premiere.) As the piece progresses, they throw themselves completely into the roles, confidently embodying the nuances of their characters to stunning effect. Graham, as Vivette is supple and beautifully compelling while Kelly offers an intensely genuine, hauntingly tortured performance.
The threads that bind, fray irreparably and the lovers are merely ‘going through the motions’. As his character Frédéri becomes enraptured by the ‘lady of Arles’, whom no one else can see, Kelly’s virtuosic movements grow increasingly frenzied. Vivettes ultimately futile efforts to illicit his return to her affections end in tragedy. Finally, completely overcome, Frédéri spreads his arms and impressively soars through the large upstage window into blackness.
Carmen is absorbing with its captivating characterisations and its broad, satisfying, seductive movements, both witty and tragic. Georges Bizet’s stimulating score, Antoni Clavés cabaret style sets and costumes, and Jean-Michel Désirés lighting play integral roles in shaping the story.
Guest artist Natalya Kusch, takes the lead role of Carmen and embodies the complex character who sizzles with sensuality yet also carries a vulnerability, emphasised by her petite stature, pixie hair-cut, and short bodice. As Joseph Skelton confidently performs Don José’s solo in the tavern, the cast snap their fingers and clap, gesturing and vocalising to the habanera song “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” or "Love is a rebellious bird”.
The main bandits Massimo Margaria, Kirby Selchow and Filippo Valmorbida, along with Paul Mathews as The Toreador offer expressive and vigorous performances. The rough-haired corps de ballet provide much entertainment as they strut and swagger, lifting and swirling chairs and each other.
Throughout the ballet, Carmen and Don José, embody the dynamics of bull-fighter and bull. Carmen's flourishing limbs, swaying hips and flashing fan and eyes seduce Don José. All reminiscent of the bull-fighters who tease and lure the bull with their flashy capes. However, as the ballet draws to its climax, the roles reverse, and like a bull in the bull-ring, she cannot escape her fate. While we like to think of Carmen as a liberated woman exercising her own agency, she is also, ultimately, a victim.
In their final scene at the bull-ring, Carmen and Don José go head-to-head in an expertly executed climax. Here, the lighting is at its most effective, casting shadows of them as they lunge and duel. In the arena behind them, eerie tinsel haired masks are ominous onlookers as Carmen propels herself towards Don José who strikes her with his blade. As he clutches her dying body, it’s hard to feel any empathy for Don José whose violent act ends forever the bright spark of Carmen.
RNZB’s dynamic dancers respond with their usual artistry and adeptness to Petit’s choreography. Despite the tragic themes, from the enthusiastic applause, it’s clear the evening was thoroughly enjoyed, another RNZB success.