First published in The Times, Monday December 20 2021
The name of Prosper Mérimée is hardly remembered today but his 1845 novella Carmen spawned a legend that continues to grow. This stripped-down dance adaptation joins a canon of beloved works that includes Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1943 musical Carmen Jones.
Choreographed by Didy Veldman and starring Natalia Osipova, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, this captivating narrative piece draws on elements of those existing works while offering a fresh take on the story. The production’s film-within-a-film concept is intriguing, showcasing Osipova’s movement and emotional range as she cuts back and forth between the fiery factory worker of Mérimée or Bizet and the star performer playing her.
While the narrative retains its tragic shape, the parallel story offers a21st-century perspective on classic themes of jealousy and thwarted passion, while meditating on the nature of performance. The vagaries of backstage life are reflected in fun sequences that pivot around a sofa in a green room, with Veldman’s choreography drawing on the iconic poses of boredom and marking time through play. This contrasts with a scene in which Osipova luxuriates in the glare of camera lights, the movement slowing to a regal pace as the character turns her star power to its highest force.
The show, which received its world premiere in Edinburgh and takes to the stage at the Southbank Centre in London in 2022, is a heady mix of tradition and the new. Instrumental versions of Bizet’s Gypsy Song and Habanera interweave with new compositions from Dave Price. The vibrant colours in the costumes illuminate Nina Kobiashvili’s minimalist stage design. Tellingly, in this version, it is the female lead who appears in the close-fitting calf-length trousers and slicked hair of the Spanish toreador.
Osipova shares the stage with her fellow luminaries Isaac Hernández and Jason Kittelberger as well as emerging talents Hannah Ekholm and Eryck Brahmania. The duet between Osipova and Ekholm is a delight, portraying friendship through an infectious routine of loose-jointed, relaxed movement. The development of the central love triangle is beautifully evoked, from open-bodied flirtation through a series of perilously balanced duets to the angular contortions displayed by Kittelberger, dancing the role of the jealous José.