The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
June 5, 2013
By Denise Sum
Copyright © by Denise Sum 2013
Just in time for summer, the NBoC heated up the stage of the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts with a new extended version of Davide Bombana's "Carmen". The ballet was originally conceived as a one act work for the Ballet de Capitole de Toulouse in 2006, which was later performed by the NBoC in 2009. That same year, Bombana expanded "Carmen" into a full length ballet for Ballett der Wiener Staatsoper und Volksoper in Vienna, which Toronto saw last week for the first time.
For the past month, Torontonians have seen posters advertising "Carmen" all over the city. In an image straight from a Harlequin romance cover, Heather Ogden wears a torn red dress, her eyes closed and head thrown back, presumably in erotic bliss. Former soloist Noah Long stands behind her, shirtless and sculpted, lips parted as he whispers something titillating in her ear. The poster is fairly representative of Bombana's ballet -- hypersexualized with no subtlety or nuance to speak of. While Bombana has pared down Prosper Mérimée’s story in order to focus on the fatal attraction between Carmen and Don José, the story and characters still feel superficial. This longer version provides a bit more insight into the role of Michaela and adds extended solos for the lead couple, but does little to elaborate on their relationship or motivations. The one act version was striking but eventually became tedious. The two act version is more of the same.
In addition to the added choreography, there have been some changes to the sets and designs. The first act features video projections of silhouettes of embracing bodies and S&M-inspired costumes for the men. There is also a sequence where Carmen encounters her double, or is it her reflection? No matter. She dances with the other Carmen briefly and the significance is never fleshed out. A campy, Trockadero-esque pas de quatre of four men in flamenco drag singing the Toreador aria is equally random. The second act takes place in a large semi-circle resembling a bullring, one of the more interesting elements of the set, which audiences will remember from the shorter version. It creates a sense of entrapment as José desperately tries to contain Carmen's sexuality while she searches for freedom.
As for the music, Bombana blends familiar melodies from Georges Bizet's opera with a scattered arrangement of pieces by modern composers (Walter Fähndrich, Alexander Knaifel, Meredith Monk, Rodion Shchedrin and José Serebrier). The score included heavy percussion segments, electronic beats, and a lot of unintelligible whispering, panting and heavy breathing (we get it, they're having sex).
The clichés continue, painfully, in the choreography. Carmen crawling seductively on a table, a cat fight with one of the cigarette girls complete with hair pulling, rolling on the floor... It is all there. The most explicit scene is the coupling of Carmen and Escamillo, who in Bombana's rendition is literally a bull rather than a bullfighter. The depiction of bestiality in a ballet is quite risqué but by then the viewer is probably too desensitized to notice. As Escamillo is thrusting, the only surprise is that Carmen chooses the missionary position.
The performers could do little to save this production. As Don José, Guillaume Côté (with facial hair to disassociate himself from his usual prince roles) was the most convincing of the bunch. He was tormented with guilt after murdering Garcia in a fit of jealousy, and crumbled with despair as he held Carmen's lifeless body in the end. Heather Ogden (with dyed brown hair) starts well, making a striking entrance, coolly blowing smoke in José's face. Her Habanera variation shows off her incredible plastique to great effect. But her interpretation quickly becomes shallow and repetitive. She grabs men from wherever, kisses them passionately, then violently shoves them away. We never learn why. She just seems impulsive, detached, and frankly, cruel. For instance, her reaction to Garcia's death is strangely emotionless. Even casual trysts need a connection. We do not see that, and her Carmen is not believable as a result.
Bombana's "Carmen", while modern and risk-taking, is ultimately a disappointment. The two act version suffers from the same incoherence as the one act version. Furthermore, the over-the-top pseudo-eroticism proves that trying too hard to be sexy is rather, well, unsexy.
Heather Ogden in "Carmen" by Bruce Zinger.
Guillaume Côté and Heather Ogden in "Carmen" by Bruce Zinger.