Watching Ballet San Jose’s Carmen last Saturday night at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts produced the same heady sensation the company’s star-studded gala last November had, an I can’t believe my good fortune in watching this feeling. Part of Masterworks of Movement and Theater, the company’s third and final program of the season, the production’s quality offered solid proof that Ballet San Jose continues to head in the right direction, under the guidance of artistic director Jose Manuel Carreño. With sumptuous orchestral accompaniment of Bizet’s score provided by Symphony Silicon Valley, and Paul Polivnick conducting, the result was heady fare indeed.

French choreographer Roland Petit’s Carmen, based on the novella by Prosper Mérimée, is a scintillating, provocative ballet that created a sensation at its 1949 premiere. Petit's work is renowned for his edgy, sensuous style, intelligence and theatricality. The story is set in Seville, in a cigarette factory. Costumes, designed by Antoni Clavé, incorporate black pointe shoes for the women, along with ratted, pouffed hair, corsets and, occasionally but not always, skirts. Carmen, with her sleek, boyish cap of dark hair, stands out. Alexsandra Meijer, as Carmen, threw her considerable talents and leggy extensions into the femme fatale role to great effect, full of spirit, grit and laughing insouciance. An added bonus for audiences on Friday and Saturday night: artistic director Carreño, former American Ballet Theatre principal, returned to the stage as the guileless Don Jose, whose jealous love for Carmen consumes him and her. While a year without performing might have diminished some of Carreño’s prodigious technique, his stage presence and nuanced interpretation were electric, mesmerizing. The bedroom pas de deux scene between the two of them was brilliantly rendered, both technically and theatrically. 

Among the ragtag group of Carmen’s compatriots, the three chief bandits were memorable. Ramon Moreno, retiring this season after 15 years with the company, was exuberant and entertaining. Amy Marie Briones kept pace with her two male partners and delivered an outstanding fouetté series interspersed with double pirouettes. The toreador Escamillo, played by Damir Emric, offered a pitch-perfect blend of theater and foppish hilarity with his clean, exaggerated technique. Throughout the ballet, a cabaret flavor reigned, bawdy and slightly dangerous. The stylized feeling brought to mind a Toulouse-Lautrec portrait of Moulin Rouge dancers come to life – or, in this case, death, as the drum crescendo within the final pas de deux between Carmen and Don Jose brings the story to its inevitable, tragic conclusion.  

Twyla Tharp’s 1986 In the Upper Room, staged by Shelley Washington and Gil Boggs, is a high octane piece that takes both dancers and audience on a frenetic, rhythm pounding journey of 40 minutes, to the music of Philip Glass. Fog and dimmed lighting (designed by Jennifer Tipton) serve the opening movement well, as two female dancers, sentries of sorts, move in tandem before stepping away, and from the fog behind them emerge three more dancers. All are clothed in pajama-like costumes, striped and anonymous like prison garb. It feels sleepy, shrouded, dreamlike, but not for long.

There are nine movements and thirteen dancers, who’ve been divided into two groups: those wearing sneakers (the “stompers”) and those in ballet slippers for the men and pointe shoes – a vivid red – for the women. From the opening’s languid stretching and pacing, the movement grows more dynamic, as do sound and lighting. Costume layers are stripped to reveal colors beneath: vivid red leotards, red tank tops, bare chests for the men. 

Some of the aerobics-inspired moves were less effective than others. Backward jogging by the “stompers” seemed inelegant, as did some of the more casual Singin’ in the Rain saunters. Within the stomper group, however, Lahna Vanderbush and Sarah Stein were standouts, with loads of personality and drive. Ihosvany Rodriguez displayed an appealing classicism throughout; his was the most successful amalgam of looking relaxed during the sauntering and yet still incorporating plenty of energy and character. 

Alison Stroming and Cindy Huang, from the ballet group, sped across the stage as a duo Tharp called “the bomb squad,” to great effect. Alexsandra Meijer was the quintessential ballerina of the dance’s nine movements, softening the effect of “the stompers” and the increasingly aerobic workout.

At the piece’s end, the audience sprang from their seats – another example of how propulsive the dance and music were – to offer the exhausted dancers a well-deserved ovation.

This program concludes the company’s 2014 repertory season. The company will be taking their “Carmen” production on tour this summer, joining Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, who will dance the leads, with stops in Moscow, London and Southern California. This invitation points to the kind of clout and influence artistic director Carreño has, and is utilizing in his new role. It is, indeed, a thrilling time to be watching Ballet San Jose.