This time it was a quadruple bill at the Royal Opera House, a compare and contrast programme full of delightful moments. How I love ballet, the pinnacle of human effort and strength and hard work and control. And it’s so beautiful.
The first in the programme was Viscera, a minimalist, plotless ballet with barely-there costumes that showed off the dancers’ honed limbs and total control. For me the highlight was when the principal dancer, Fumi Kaneko, stood quietly in a white spotlight with the rest of the company in animalistic formation moving around her. The sweeping score, Lowell Lieberman’s Piano Concerto No1, was fantastic too. The thing about a ballet without a plot is that it gives you the space to focus on what the dancers are doing with their bodies in unison, in groups, in solos without having to try and follow their expressions, their gestures or the story. I have been privileged to see the Alvin Ailey Company a couple of times and this expressive dance reminded me of that.
Next up was, for me, the highlight of the afternoon. Debussy’s lyrical, mystical Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune set to dance showed off the serenity, the strength in stillness of Eric Underwood and Lauren Cuthbertson. The stillness of her first lift resembled a helium balloon, set free by a child, and floating gently into the sky. I loved and adored it and the dancers justly received huge applause for this surreal and minimalist, yet emotionally stirring piece.
Next up, and a complete contrast, was Pas de Deux, a movement of classical ballet to Tchaikovsky’s music, a supplementary dance for Swan Lake. Though it was a great and contrasting example of the exigencies of traditional ballet, to me it came over as a little contrived and formulaic when contrasted to the fluid modern movement of the other items, and therefore a little out of place here.
Finally the piece that had attracted my attention in the first place: Carmen, choreographed by the great Carlos Acosta. As background, Carmen is, has always been my very favourite opera. Oh, I know snobby people denounce it as too popular because of its accessibility but I absolute adore its stonking musicality. To me it’s a precursor of musical theatre with a cracking plot, filled with psychological observation; with sexiness; with joie de vivre. Every single time I see a bit of Carmen, I’m left wanting to watch or listen to it again. Incidentally, when we lived in Paris we used to pass the house in which Bizet wrote this masterpiece every day on our school run down the N13 west of Paris overlooking the Seine in Bougival.
It was against this backdrop of anticipation that I eagerly awaited this afternoon’s ballet trip. And it was good, yes, but….it didn’t quite do it for me.
The thing is in my opinion the original Carmen is pretty damn perfect. the three hours of the opera are jam-packed as it is without Acosta’s minestrone soup additions of flamenco; Afro-Cuban drumming; ballet; bar-room scenes of strip poker, perhaps; the bull of Fate; even L’Arlèsienne at one point. MsDD disagrees with my opinion: apparently Acosta wanted to modernise the opera, make it more accessible through dance but I think he’s tried to pack far too much into just under an hour, skipping through the plot at breakneck speed in a version that threatens to be more of a pastiche than a serious alternative to the original opera. Sadly one of my favourite parts, where Carmen sees her death in the tarot cards, was sung by an older mezzo accompanied by a guitar. It fell short of the powerful moment of the opera and, to me, didn’t add much to the ballet.
Nevertheless, there was much to like in this dark, sultry spectacle, overtly erotic and sexual in places: I particularly enjoyed the scene where Don José and Carmen are in her prison cell after she has been arrested for a stabbing after a jealous fight. Carmen is chained to the bars but it is clear that Don José has also found himself imprisoned in a cell of seduction. Carlos Acosta’s swaggering Escamillo was fantastic too: he really does command and light up the stage and I did enjoy the idea of Carmen fighting to the death with Fate. It was an interesting twist on Carmen but I was left wanting more.
Nonetheless, I left the Opera House as emotionally drained as usual: I really wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to music and dance performances. It’s as if they reach into my body and pull apart my bones to get a reaction. I know this seems strange to many, but there you go. Perhaps I’m strange. And perhaps, on reflection, if we can spend gem-filled afternoons like this, I’ll keep on my Friend Membership of the Opera House.