When the Compañía Nacional de Danza (CND) commissioned a new version of Carmen from Johan Inger, the choreographer apparently said that he felt that it was a real challenge. In a project with many Spanish ingredients (the story, the central character, the company that would dance it, etc.), he found stimulating to explore routes towards a less picturesque and more personal take on the topic. Except for the character of Escamillo (a toreador whom Inger portrays with too many bravura clichés), he succeeded in creating a Carmen that revisits the well-known story from a fresh perspective. Rather than love and passion, Inger emphasizes violence, with death largely looming in the production. His Carmen had a good reception when it premiered in Madrid in 2015, and made Inger the winner of a Benois de la Danse award in 2016. The work is now back at Madrid Teatros del Canal, and allows the CND to demonstrate the technical and dramatic range of its excellent dancers.

The main change introduced by Inger in the narrative of Carmen is the addition of a new character that guides the audience through the events in the story. In the form of a child dressed as a basketball player, this figure is a silent presence that appears recurrently on stage. He witnesses the action with curiosity during the opening numbers, but shows bewilderment as violence unfolds in the last scenes. The character of Don José also benefits from Inger’s reconfiguration of the story. His role is enlarged, and the audience witnesses his inner feelings. One of the most poignant moments of the ballet is the opening of the second act, which exposes Don José’s jealousy fuelling the transformation of his romantic feelings for Carmen into the lethal ferocity that causes the tragedy. Daan Vervoot made the most of this scene in his portrayal of the character for this performance. More discreet during the first act, his rendering was robust in the second part. 

The role of Carmen is outlined with less psychological and emotional detail by Inger. Her movement vocabulary recalls at times Mats Ek’s characterization (the wide-open legs motif is perhaps the most obvious borrowing), but depicts effectively her unwielding character. The pas de trois for her and two of her suitors (Escamillo and Zuñiga) in Act 1 best exemplifies her authoritatively flirtatious nature while the following pas de deux with Don José offers a glimpse of her capacity for tenderness. Here her resolute movements of the previous numbers become charmingly sensual and quiet. In the interpretation by Kayoko Everhart, who danced the role in this performance, Carmen is authoritative and commanding when she is in a crowd but reluctantly soft in the arms of Don José.

The corps de ballet has an important role in this production. The female dancers form a boisterous group of prostitutes, completing the description of Carmen’s tough world. And the whole corps participates in the army of black shadows that symbolically represent death across the narrative. In the first act, the black figures are disturbing omens of the tragedy that is about to be presented while at the end they are a powerful dramatic highlight of the violent ending of the story. The clean, confident performance of the CND dancers gave an overwhelming presence to this dark chorus.

The music in Inger’s Carmen (played in this performance by the Orquesta Sinfónica Verum under the direction of Manuel Coves) mainly comes from Bizet’s score, but includes some additional music by Marc Álvarez. The Nordic resonances of the new passages work well as the backdrop for the introspective sequences, and help give the story a more contemporary flavour. The design also contributes to set the story away from its original nineteenth century setting. The set, designed by Curt Allen Wilmer, is sparse, with mobile blocks, and the costumes, by the Spanish fashion designer David Delfín, are sober, elegant. Their colour palette is reduced to black, white and ochres, with red for Carmen. While giving an impression of timelessness, they still retain some references to Spain. Flouncy mini-dresses for the women and polka-dot shirts for some of the male characters are Delfín’s witty concessions to the locality of the narrative. The recent, untimely death of the designer was touchingly remembered in this performance, dedicated to his memory. Delfín’s bold talent, which challenged the conventions of the fashion industry, will also also be sorely missed on the dance stage.