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The Carolina Ballet opened its ninth season in A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater with a revival of its Robert Weiss-choreographed Carmen. The run continues Sept. 20-24. Some performance lovers crave only the new, but to my mind, one of the many great things about having a resident ballet company is that we get to see the same works periodically. That stunning sequence of physical expression that has lingered in memory, that moment of pathos or joy that so jolted your spirit, is yours to experience again when the company reprises the work. Just as the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of the art changes with time, so does the company’s interpretation. The Carmen I saw this time was quite different from the one I saw four years ago.
Weiss’ strong choreography with its many inventive dances is set to an amalgam of Georges Bizet’s Carmen and Pablo Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, arranged and orchestrated by Glenn Mehrbach, with additional music by him. The current production is danced to a recording made especially for the Carolina Ballet under the direction of Alfred E. Sturgis. Although it is the same music that was performed live in previous presentations it does not have the same impact. Perhaps, since the City of Raleigh turned down his idea for an art plaza, Jim Goodmon could be persuaded to give his $2.5 million as an endowment to support live music at the ballet. That would be a gift that would keep on giving, not only to audiences, but also to the reputation of Raleigh as a cultured city.
As well as the conversion to recorded music, there were some changes in the staging. For instance, Weiss had done away with the gaggle of children who had previously overpopulated the stage, and replaced some of the silly stage business with real dancing—big improvements. The changes in the casting of the main roles made an even greater difference.
Melissa Podcasy is not in the cast rotation this time, instead coaching the three ballerinas dancing the demanding role of Carmen on alternate nights. Lilyan Vigo performed on opening night, giving an intriguing interpretation of Carmen’s mercurial character. She played her as an innocent flirt at the beginning, a passionate, undisciplined girl with no thought of consequences. Vigo is a beautiful dancer, and she continues to build her acting skills. It was marvelous watching her Carmen harden into cruel pleasure-seeker who condemns not only herself but the man whose love she has turned to madness. But where Podcasy, four years ago, had started out full-tilt sultry and had no place to go as the story went on, Vigo never quite got to that steamy place, making us work a little too hard to believe that Don José would kill rather than let her go.
And it was really a stretch to believe that any woman would leave the loving Timour Bourtasenkov—Don José—for Cyrille de la Barre’s egotistical toreador Escamillo. The drama works much better when the two men are equally attractive in very different ways. One can then feel a woman would naturally be torn between these two suitors. Bourtasenkov, no matter the role, is the living definition of manly grace, and he is very moving as the good-hearted man swept away from his early, purer love of Micaëla by Carmen’s charms. De la Barre is a stupendous dancer, but he makes a much better bad guy than a commanding lover. He did not fare well against the memory of the regal Isanusi Garcia (long since departed from the Carolina Ballet), whose long legs, long back and resplendent sexual power in the Escamillo role would have conquered stronger-minded women than Carmen.
The dancers in the supporting roles were very good. The beautiful Hong Yang was back as Micaëla, the sweet girl betrothed to Don José before he encounters Carmen. She and Bourtasenkov were a trifle under-rehearsed, but by their second scene had found their timing. Lara O’Brien and Heather Eberhardt as Carmen’s girlfriends Frasquita and Mercédès were excellent, as they always are together, both dancing very well. And Pablo Javier Perez was dashing as Dancaïre, the insouciant leader of the smugglers.
A ballet company is a fluid thing, with dancers coming and going each season. Mostly this is good, keeping the company fresh and allowing for different chemistry among the dancers. But when too many seasoned dancers take their leave, it can cause problems. Over the last two seasons, the Carolina Ballet has lost several excellent male dancers from the middle ranks, and that loss really showed in Carmen, which requires a large number of men as soldiers, customs men, gypsies and toreadors. The company has a lot of very talented youths coming along, but they are not yet manly in appearance. As soldiers, they looked like cadets, and as the customs officials guarding the mountain pass they looked like adolescents playing dress-up. In another year or two that will be different, but right now the absence of men like Mikhail Nikitine (who went to the Miami City Ballet), Rudy Candia Rivero (Ballet San Jose), Gabor Kapin (Boston Ballet), Maximilien Baud (Pennsylvania Ballet) and Christopher Rudd (Les Grands Ballets Canadiens) has left quite a gap.
Nonetheless, this new production of Carmen is well worth the seeing, for its very considerable innate pleasures, and for its revelation of the way that ballet, one of the most plastic of the plastic arts, is continually remade in its everlasting efforts toward perfection.