A New Take On an Old Classic

 
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The motivation behind this world première from St Petersburg Ballet Theatre – championed by Irina Kolesnikova, the troupe’s prima ballerina – is an admirable one. “Her Name Was Carmen was devised in support of international aid organisation Oxfam and their Stand As One campaign,” the dancer told Auditorium in a recent Q&A. “After visiting refugee camps in the Balkans with Oxfam [earlier this year] and talking to the refugees, I realised the absolute necessity of doing something to help them and tell their story.” Unfortunately, an admirable motive is not enough to redeem the ballet, which is puzzling in set-up and sloppily performed – a swing and a miss in both intent and execution.

The work is billed as ‘a new take on an old classic’: Bizet’s Carmen, a tale of passion and jealousy. In SPBT’s update, the action takes place in a modern-day European refugee camp rather than nineteenth-century Seville, and Carmen is not a capricious Romani temptress but a rich Spanish girl on the run from the mob boss who murdered her family. Certain elements of the famous opera are detectable in this version, including the score and tragic ending, but the connection is a weak one – why the company insisted on nailing its colours to this particular mast is a question that hangs over the whole production.

Had they opted for a new story, they could have shaken off the many incompatible aspects of the source material – including its messy love triangle – and presented a narrative that actually achieves the production’s purported purpose: highlighting the plight of refugees in the ongoing European migrant crisis. As it stands, it’s Carmen (played by Kolesnikova) the ballet is most concerned with – a character who, it bears emphasising, is not a refugee but merely pretending to be one in order to hide from the villainous Garcia (Yuri Kovalev).

Carmen’s experience of the camp she hides in, her dawning humility and re-evaluation of self upon witnessing the struggles of those less fortunate than her, is the show’s primary focus. Meanwhile, not a single one of the ballet’s 40 or so refugee characters is given a name, let alone a backstory. Instead, they’re all shoehorned in as faceless backdrops to Carmen’s story – props that serve to highlight her compassion, bear witness to her budding romance with camp guard Jose (Dmitri Akulinin), and aid her journey of self-discovery. The tone-deafness is compounded by showy displays of benevolence: angelic volunteer aid workers caressing the faces of the destitute, Carmen cheerily kicking off an impromptu ballgame among the camp’s inhabitants, as if to say “Why so glum? There’s tons of fun to be had around here!” These misguided scenes indulge the worst of the ‘white saviour’ trope and are boring to boot – random, repetitive divertissements that account for a solid half of the 90-minute piece.

Indeed, in terms of choreography (Olga Kostel) and performance, the show comes up distinctly lacking. Dull sequences abound, marked by clunky leaps and poor timing from the corps. Kolesnikova demonstrates some lovely pointework, particularly in her slinky first-act solo, but her showing is a cautious one; there’s little of the danger or spice we’ve come to associate with Carmen (again, prompting the question of why SPTB has bothered to tie it in). Even her tango-inspired showdown with Garcia – the liveliest scene of the night – is a tame affair, all neat extensions and careful lifts. It’s a decent but not dazzling performance – a shame, given the rapturous reviews the ballerina has garnered in roles like Odette/Odile.

On the plus side, there are some fine set designs (Vladimir Firer for set and costumes and Evgeny Gasburg for lighting) – including vivid strip lighting and sections of chain-link fence that double up as ballet barres – and it’s worth noting that the show is actively fundraising for the refugee crisis (£1 of every ticket goes to Oxfam’s Refugee Crisis Appeal). Still, the good intentions behind Her Name Was Carmen are not enough to breathe life into its paper-thin characterisations and questionable set-up. SPBT’s strong suit (and standard MO) is classical rep – the company would do well to keep its focus on that.

 

Sara Veale

 

photos | ©King Will