The particular thrill of musicians tuning their instruments has always been one of my most treasured experiences. Its absence at ballet performances over the past few years has been an ever-present, if dull, ache. The presence of a live orchestra is a delight which adds immensely to the total ballet experience. Brandon Phillips was at the helm of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra who, with concert master Miro Chakaryan, played very well last night at the ballet performance of “Carmen- The Ballet” with the famous and familiar music by Georges Bizet (1838-1875). The arrangement and orchestration of the music was by Michael Tuffin.
The story, choreographed by Veronica Paeper, follows the opera drama closely, although there is a scene in the fourth and final act inside the bullfighting stadium which the opera omits. The portrayal of the dead bull is a clever theatrical device which pleased me and from the start the dance work is steeped in death, albeit of a bull at the beginning. Street urchins (presumably from the Joburg Ballet Academy, although I had guessed they originated from the Joburg Ballet Outreach?) mimic the soldiers in the changing of the guard and, from the tight unison of the male corps de ballet, one knows that this production is going to be superb.
“Where did they get all these dancers?” is my initial thought when seeing the number of male dancers on stage. Artistic director, Iain MacDonald, answers my question in his programme message. They come from the Joburg Ballet Academy and the National School of the Arts (the first time the latter is collaborating with Joburg Ballet).
On opening night the role of Carmen was performed by Claudia Monja. Carmen is one of the most psychologically difficult of all the ballet roles for a ballerina to master, for Carmen is the antithesis of other ballet heroines. She is common, slutty, trashy and her allure is not of a young innocent girl, but a morally outrageous and sexually experienced woman. Most portrayals are unconvincing to me, a woman, and even more so to men. Claudia Monja, however, while not being Joburg Ballet’s best dancer technically, is certainly Joburg Ballet’s strongest character actor by a long margin, and she “nailed it” as one person commented after the end. One is never in doubt about her potent effect on the men who desire her.
On opening night Claudia Monja was partnered by Leusson Muniz as Don José, with Armando Barros as Escamillo. It was, however, Nicole Ferreira-Dill who provided the stark contrast to Carmen in her role as Micaela – the faithful and innocent fiancée of our rather dubious “hero”. It will probably be no secret to regular readers of my blog that I admire the dancing of Nicole Ferreira-Dill immensely and she didn’t disappoint in the role of Micaela. My heart was urging Don José to go home with Micaela and to stay out of the trouble we know Carmen is going to bring him. Alas! The ballet storyline won out over the reasoning of my heart and Don José deserts to follow Carmen into the underworld.
Kitty Phetla as the Madame of the factory, Tumelo Lekana as the pickpocket, Revil Yon as Captain Zuniga, Sikhumbuzo Hlahleni as the Captain of the Guard, Monice Cristina as Mercedes, Sanmarie Kreuzhuber as Frasquita, Albertus Dreyer (guest artist) as Lilas Pastia, Ivan Domiciano as the Chief Smuggler and Chase Bosch as the Fiesta Man all contributed positively to the wonderful dancing. The stand-out performance here was Tumelo Lekana in the role of the pickpocket. I loved it.
The technical aspects were interesting but not startlingly innovative or remarkable. The arena sets date back to more affluent times. Most people know that I am not a fan of big sets for ballet – believing that the imagination of the audience is better than even the best sets. The costumes are lovely, and created “after the originals” by Peter Cazalet. Lighting design is by Simon King. Photographs in the programme and for publicity, including the ones used for this review, are by Lauge Sorensen.
“Carmen-the Ballet”, which runs at the Joburg Theatre for a season of ten performances, is not to be missed. I tried to work out exactly what makes this production so wonderful. The live music helps, the quality of the dancing, especially the corps de ballet work, is hugely improved. Ultimately I think it is the energy of Carmen, the Ballet itself. It is energetic and gritty, filled with allure and bravado, rather than the escapism and magic of most other ballets.
Joburg Ballet needs the support of all dance lovers. I hope that dance teachers will encourage their students to attend performances presented by the Joburg Ballet (and other dance companies). One warning to parents – there are two on stage sex scenes, Carmen’s consensual act with Escamillo and Don José’s rape just before he kills her. However both are very subtly accomplished and it is highly unlikely that children under the age of fourteen or fifteen will even notice them.
After the performance the promotions and awards were announced – Claudia Monja and Nicole Ferreira-Dill have both been promoted to principals while Ruan Galdino, Leusson Muniz, Monike Cristina and Sanmarie Kreuzhuber were also promoted. The Giselle Award went to Albertus Dreyer and three Madge Cade Awards were made to Shannon Glover, Shana Dewey and to the general manager Kabelo Modiga. My congratulations to all concerned.
Readers are reminded of the forthcoming ballet season in July/July which will be Act III of Raymonda together with a world premiere by Redha, one of Europe’s leading choreographers. I have seen works of his before and they are wonderful. The next symphony season will be in May/June at the Linder Auditorium. Importantly there is “A Dazzling Gala at The Teatro” with Joburg Ballet and Friends on Saturday 19 May at 15:00 and at 20:00. Tickets are priced between R200 and R400.
All round “Carmen – the Ballet” was an excellent evening’s entertainment.