Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s CARMEN.maquia, presented by Ballet Hispanico at the Apollo on Saturday night, was passionate but uneven. The first problem was with Sansano’s choreography. The title is adapted from tauromaquia, which is the Spanish word for bullfighting. Instead, we’re Carmenfighting. It’s meant to be emotionally tempestuous, fraught, dangerous, and it frequently was. The ballet featured some strong performances but there were two significant problems. 

Ballet Hispanico in rehearsal for <i>CARMEN.Maquia</i> © Sebastian Gil Photography
Ballet Hispanico in rehearsal for CARMEN.Maquia
© Sebastian Gil Photography

To the detriment of the work as a whole, Sansano seemed intent on manifesting each character’s inner turmoil in too much detail for it to be easily taken in. The adage that the hand is quicker than the eye holds true for ballet as well as legerdemain. Particularly when it comes to conveying a narrative, there needs to be an economy of movement for the story to unfold and not get muddied up. But hands and feet often move much faster than the eye can take in and comprehend. With the ear it's a different story altogether, in that we can hear all the musical notes and make sense of them, even when it is moving at prestissimo speed. Making the choice of the qualities of movement that will go within a given amount of music is a central choice and it's as if Sansano put too much before the eyes to be easily absorbed in this production. The effect is that we’re always playing catch up with what our eyes just saw while the music is moving on.

The overloading of the choreography is not the only problem, however. Some of the casting choices were not the best either. The choices were puzzling as the company has better dancers available to fill those parts. Cast as Carmen, Kimberly Van Woesik was beautiful, capricious and even tempestuous. Her dancing unfortunately suffered from the persistent, distracting impression of overtly busy choreography and she was a little too emotionally lightweight for the part. She didn’t seem as sure of her ability to dominate men with her sexuality as she should have been to portray Carmen. I couldn’t help but wonder what that part would have looked like on one of the company’s more senior women, such as Lauren Alzamora. The part needs someone who can move with the absolute authority of a seasoned veteran. It’s not enough to be able to focus your own attention on stage, you must also be able to re-direct the audience’s attention where you want it to go. Van Woesik, while attractive and talented, doesn’t quite take you all the way there. She doesn’t convey the flagrant, smoldering passion required to make it dramatically logical that she could drive Don José to a jealous rage. In his turn, Christopher Bloom, cast as Don José, was also visually striking. He’s extremely good looking and a fine, taut dancer, well suited to the choreographic language that Sansano employs in this work. Bloom’s disadvantage was that he was unable to conjure the deadly level of fury that was necessary to make the tragedy of murdering Carmen seem inevitable. His lack of fire was an impediment to the drama taking place on stage.

Min-Tzu Li, cast in the role of Micaela, proved to be the most successful casting choice of the night. Her dance with Don José involved two pas de deux that were highlights of the ballet. The first duet was to convey the letter that sent Don José back home to his dying mother and the second was to tell him that Carmen had repudiated him and married Escamillo, the bullfighter. In each case, Li’s choreography was less jumbled to some degree, but even where it was busy, she managed never to look hurried. She moved with serenity and grace, with a clarity of purpose. Where other dancers gave the impression of flailing their arms, she was always expressive and somehow still economical in her port de bras. She told her portion of the story beautifully.

Ballet Hispanico in rehearsal for <i>CARMEN.Maquia</i> © Sebastina Gil Miranda
Ballet Hispanico in rehearsal for CARMEN.Maquia
© Sebastina Gil Miranda
Mario Ismael Espinoza, as Escamillo, was intense and passionate. His pas de deux with Carmen gave the performance the first real flashes of passion that we associate with this story. He would probably have been even better had he been cast in the role of Don José. Given his easy flair for the machismo of the bullfighter, it is no stretch to imagine him in a seething rage. He did well with his part. Jamal Rashann Callender is one of Ballet Hispanico’s best dancers and really shone when dancing with Van Woesik. His potent physical presence was enough to make one wonder how well he would suit the role of Escamillo. He has the powerful physical build and natural charisma for the part and here again, it seems as if we had a natural choice. A final standout among the dancers was Melissa Fernandez. While at times she carried her brazenness a little too far, her personality was engaging throughout and she evidenced a strong ability to play off of her fellow dancers with a natural storyteller’s flair. She was tightly focused, feisty and radiated heat.

While there was plenty to like about the way Ballet Hispanico moved as a group and there were many fine individual performers, the casting choices for this Carmen did not make the best use of the company’s pool of talent. It could have been a much better theatrical experience with just a little tinkering and some re-thinking of the casting. Hopefully there will be future performances of this CARMEN.maquia that will allow time for it to develop more fully. Having just one night of something the company has worked so hard to stage doesn’t give it room to grow.