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Review: Compañía Nacional Masterfully Performs Inger’s Deeper, Darker and Sexier ‘Carmen’

Members of Compañía Nacional de Danza de España perform Johan Inger’s interpretation of the iconic opera “Carmen” at the Granada Theatre. Click to view larger
Members of Compañía Nacional de Danza de España perform Johan Inger’s interpretation of the iconic opera “Carmen” at the Granada Theatre. (UCSB Arts & Lectures photo)

There’s plenty of eroticism in Swedish choreographer Johan Inger’s darkly psychological, minutely constructed and deliciously gritty 2015 interpretation in dance of Georges Bizet’s iconic opera Carmen, but Inger’s homage also is an adept acknowledgement of Bizet’s bottom line.

UCSB Arts & Lectures brought the incomparable Compañía Nacional de Danza de España to the Granada Theatre on March 6-7 to present Inger’s emotionally uncompromising and artistically brilliant carte de visite in person, so to speak.

The company made three stops on its U.S. tour, and Santa Barbara was one of them. Dance enthusiasts in Santa Barbara and those who came up from Los Angeles for the occasion were treated to a choreographic masterpiece, perfectly executed by this world-class ensemble. Artistic Director José Carlos Martinez and his Compañia Nacional own this work technically, emotionally and artistically. The performance on March 7 conjured goosebumps, then and now.

A stake through the heart of Victorian sexism and misogyny, Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen offended even Parisians of the newly established Third Republic for daring to create a lower-class heroine of strength and presence of mind who chose her lovers and relished, fool-heartedly in the end, her sexual independence. Bizet was no dummy about the mores of the Victorian era and constructed the entire opera from a five-note descending sequence — Carmen’s death motif.

In 16th notes, the tune is a lively Habanera; in quarter notes, a love song. But for Bizet and also Inger, the Carmen leitmotif is all about death. The incomprehensible impulse of one human being to murder another is the issue, but the outcome is always the same.

Musically, choreographically and metaphysically a 21st century reboot of Bizet’s controversial take on feminism and its suppression, Inger dives deeper, darker, sexier. The ballet’s opening and closing scenes for example, entirely the product of Inger’s personal subtext, bookend the narrative with a visual parable on the trauma of lost innocence. A fresh take from the get-go on an already complex narrative.

Using another chilling visual metaphor, the choreographer populates the stage at various turns of doubt during the two-act ballet with faceless black presences, hobgoblins from the psychic underworld who bait and tease, grab at and occasionally snare the living. Scary stuff, because such a deep vein, the fear of death, is tapped so powerfully.

Bizet’s original score is the musical template on which Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, with additional music by Marc Álvarez, has crafted additional sound mixes, adding elements of electronic music, exotic percussion, meter shifts and tonality warps to enhance without upstaging Bizet’s meaty score. The collaboration works beautifully.

David Delfín’s simple and sexy present-day casual costuming gave potent and steamy currency to the ongoing topicality of the Carmen discourse, while set designer Curt Allen Wilmer and lighting designer Tom Visser created in tandem a kind of nether world of expansive and often gripping illusion from utter darkness on the Granada stage. Marvelous stagecraft.

No bullring in Seville, Bizet’s original setting for Carmen, but rather a phalanx of perhaps 12 or more tall wheeled boxes rearranged themselves like storyline bookmarks from sequence to sequence, opening and closing, forming walls of inclusion or exclusion, literally reflecting but also devouring dancers. Simplicity in set design that also was successfully unnerving.

Populating this nearly primordial world of sexuality and death, shifting landscapes and dark unknowns, Inger’s complexly detailed, sometimes explicitly erotic, powerfully analytical and message-driven movement design made sense, even of iniquity. Virtuoso passages for soloists, duos and other combinations showcased Compañía Nacional’s incredible principals.

The company’s corps triumphed over mischievously difficult unison ensemble sequences with jaw-dropping precision and provided stunning visual and visceral support for Kayoko Everhart’s confident and graceful Carmen, Daan Vervoort’s expressive and all too human Don José and the charming Leona Sivos’ beautifully intuitive interpretation of the innocent (Boy). Isaac Montilor’s bravura performance as Escamillo and Toby William Mallitt’s menacing presence as Zuñiga were roles aptly defined by Inger’s imaginative choreographic savvy.

Hugs and kisses to UCSB Arts & Lectures and the evening’s sponsors, Sage Publishing and Sara Miller McCune.

Noozhawk contributing writer Daniel Kepl can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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