Conceptually, Carmen seems a perfect vehicle for the expressive, fiery dancing of ballet superstar Natalia Osipova and Didy Veldman’s production provided just that opportunity. But, counter-intuitively, the action is set as a “play-within-a-play” and – just as the filmmaker Carlos Saura had done with his 1983 film of Carmen being presented as the making of a modern flamenco-based play – Veldman blurs the lines between reality and drama by presenting her dancers as actors making a film. This performance was the London premiere of a production that received its world premiere in Edinburgh, just prior to last Christmas.

Natalia Osipova (Carmen)
© Rick Guest

Unlike Saura’s Carmen, Veldman does not take a full or linear approach to Prosper Mérimée’s timeless narrative, which became the basis for George Bizet’s opera, the popular themes of which are cleverly mixed into Dave Price’s modern, jazz-infused score. Nothing can improve on Bizet but it places his great music into a contemporary context that appears artistically appropriate to Veldman’s directorial vision. Anyone seeking a straightforward interpretation of Carmen will be disappointed, although, just as Price does with the music, Veldman sneaks many heady flavours of Carmen into her modern interpretation and builds a scenario ripe with the key essences of sensuality, passion and jealousy. 

It is also noteworthy that Veldman does so much with so little, mobilising a small cast of just five but made to seem so much more by the impactful visuals in the arresting video projections of Oleg Mikhailov and Eric Islamov, viewed as a mosaic film montage over multiple screens punctuating Nina Kobiashvili’s inventive set. The opportunity to view characters “off-screen” behind the main stage area, accentuated through the lighting design of Ben Ormerod, helped to drive Veldman’s vision along by presenting two strands of her story simultaneously. 

Isaac Hernández, Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittelberger in Carmen
© Annabel Moeller

This pacy momentum is also down to Osipova who naturally dominates proceedings and flashes narrative meaning in every expression. As always in Carmen, she is obsessively desired by the character of José but here also by the “actor” in that role – played by Osipova’s real-life partner, Jason Kittelberger – and she is attracted to Escamillo (not now a matador but the film’s director), portrayed by Isaac Hernández. Hannah Ekholm, formerly a dancer with Alexander Whitley, plays Michaela, girlfriend of José, both as actor and character; and Eryck Brahmania swept up (in one case, literally) a clutch of supporting roles, including that of the film’s cameraman. A fascinating aspect of the piece was the subtle cuts to reveal the actors’ lives “off-camera” characterised by their playful antics around a green room sofa (somehow reminiscent of the Friends opening credits) and a birthday party for the director. In the margins of this sequence, the fourth wall was breached so well that the audience was left wondering whether the technical fault that left Hernández grumpily alone on stage was real or an intended conceit!

Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittelberger in Carmen
© Amanda Fordyce

Osipova performed several duets partnering Hernández and Kittelberger, plus another with Ekholm, with an easy command of Veldman’s contemporary style, more neoclassical than that of Arthur Pita (who choreographed The Mother, Osipova’s last full-length excursion into modern dance outside of The Royal Ballet). Veldman’s choreography is a rich mix of the classical language of pirouettes, arabesques and jetés set as jewels within angular and grounded modern movement; all delivered with an impressive emotional integrity as Osipova flits between the twin roller-coaster rides of both character and actor. Kittelberger was equally impressive. His chiselled cheekbones and jawline give the impression of a vintage film idol and this was a performance to boot, incorporating a visceral, rubber-boned solo that was a dance highlight: his pair of duets with, first, Ekholm (playful and charming) and then Osipova (sensual and immediate) was also top drawer dancing. By contrast, the Osipova/Hernández association lacked a similar chemistry.

The sum of all these excellent parts (including Nina Kobiashvili’s luscious costumes) didn’t quite add up, partly due to the convolutions of the fragmented narratives, which was most notable in a sometimes confusing first act (and I wondered whether the interval was necessary); and partly because I don’t feel that the QEH stage suited the production, particularly with the closeness of audience and stage. Nonetheless, there is nothing that could detract from yet another memorable performance by one of the greatest dancers of our time.