Spanish choreographer Victor Ullate is known for addressing Spanish themes and traditions in his work. Creations such as El Amor Brujo (1994), Seguiriya (2000) El Sur (2005) and his revision of Petipa’s Don Quixote (to name just some of his most emblematic works) give evidence of the continued inspiration that he has found in his roots. He has now taken up the challenge of choreographing another Spanish yet universal Carmen. His updated, graceful reconfiguration of the ballet premiered in Madrid this week.

The production is devoid of all the clichés that usually dominate the balletic versions of the story. The design by Paco Azorín sets the story in a contemporary, sparse setting, away from the picturesque Andalusia. The costumes by Anna Güell have no general references to flamenco apparel either. Glamourous dresses alternate with black maillots in bands, projecting a visual look that recalls, particularly through the male uniforms, that of Game of Thrones. The music retains most of the well-known melodies from Bizet's score, which has been brilliantly extended with new passages by Pedro Navarrete. These sections, with leading percussions and flavour, significantly contribute to make the production sound fresh and new. At the same time, they provide enough local touches to anchor the story in Spain.  

Ullate’s choreography follows a similar pattern. The movement vocabulary is ballet based, but is coated with references (in the hips, in the arms) that recall the Spanish tradition. As it is typical in Ullate’s style, expressivity is achieved through graceful lines, soft yet precise limbs and delicate dramatic force. One of the major choreographic accomplishments of the production is the importance played by the arms in the introduction of the main character. Carmen is presented in a public scene (a catwalk?) and hips and legs only intervene to complement with subtlety the enormous array of connotations suggested by the arms. Many traits in her personality (her sensuality, her untamed nature, her at times superficial behaviour) are here dramatically introduced through an impressive set of arm movements. 

The interplay between music and dance is also noteworthy. The group scene that enacts the ludicrous ambience inhabited by Carmen at night is charged with frankly erotic gestures yet the light farcical tone of the music softens the atmosphere. The contrast between the playful notes and the sexual acts prevents any sordidness to arise from the stage. The scene remains as elegant and neat as any other sequence born out of Ullate’s hands.

If I have one objection to this Carmen, it is maybe its length. The performance feels a tad too long, possibly due to the large amount of ensemble scenes. All of them are beautifully choreographed and brilliantly performed by Ullate dancers (so sharp, supple and musical in their executions), but at times they delay the development of the main narrative line of the story. Perhaps a more decisive focus on the Carmen, José, Escamillo triangle could bring more dynamism to the second half of the ballet.

In the dress rehearsal I attended (on 30 August), Carmen was performed by Marlen Fuerte. She was splendid in the opening numbers, where her gifted arms gave her a stage presence that later faded slightly. Josué Ullate played D. José, his elegant, vigorous dancing at its best in his lyrical solo seducing Carmen. Cristian Oliveri, as D. José’s rival Escamillo, contained his bravura well, thus benefiting the verisimilitude of his characterization. Likewise, Dorian Acosta, playing the Death, was restrained in his grave rendering of the role. And Gianluca Battaglia and Mariano Cardano made the audience laugh in the two comic roles of the piece, Carmen’s travesty friends.

The production is certainly not to be missed.