Ballet of the Polish National Opera
'Carmen', 'As if'
Heavy on symbolism
by Catherine Pawlick
June 16, 2005 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg
As part of the “Viva La Baltica” theme within this year’s White Nights Festival at the Mariinsky theatre, artists from neighboring Baltic countries have come to the Mariinsky stage for performances sprinkled throughout the one-month festival. Some of the guests include the Swedish Radio Orchestra with the Mariinsky Theatre Chorus, the Krakow Symphony Orchestra and the Ballet of the Polish National Opera which presented Mats Ek’s “Carmen” and “Kak by” (“As if”) on June 16 and 17.
For the unaccustomed, classically-trained eye, a first viewing of Mats Ek’s choreography can be a rude shock to the system. Parallel legs, right angles, flexed feet, ungraceful, weighted lifts. His style is modern with nary a glimpse of classicism, but the dancers are so well versed in this vocabulary that it seems natural and second nature to them.
Set to Rodion Schedrin’s version of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen Suite”, this 21st century take on the opera based on Prosper Merrime’s libretto addresses the dual nature of Carmen – an evil woman, undeserving of trust. Bizet saw Carmen as a strong individualist, independent, sincere and freedom loving who, even in deceit, is true to her ideals. In the program notes, Ek says he tried to unite both visions of the heroine, Merrime and Bizet’s. His approach is not chronological – he leads with the theme of Don Jose facing the firing squad: a man facing death sees his entire life flash before his eyes. Ek’s “Carmen” is a flashback, a kaleidoscope of events that portray the strength of the cigar-smoking heroine and the weakness of the man who loves her.
The sets by Anna Laguna and Pompei Santora for “Carmen” are spare, bare, utilitarian and avant garde. The empty stage has a metallic backdrop. A large yoga/medicine/exercise ball rests downstage. One other wall prop is brought onstage briefly but otherwise the stage is void of decoration. Costumes are shiny ruffled dresses for the women with matching hair scrunchies made of the same fabric as the dresses. Think Kitri in the 1980's ready to go clubbing – flashy and tasteless. Men sport war-era grey wool Chinese-type lock tops and pants. The Toreador and Officer differ, the former in normal toreadoran dress, the latter in a gaudy shiny silver suit.
The ballet opens to a man sitting on the exercise ball, his back to the audience. This is Don Jose. Church bells chime. Mikaela, danced by Dominika Krishtofska, flows onstage clothed in a long, slim shiny purple dress, her arms waving like snakes in the air. She's an an Ek-ian cloud -- without the program notes it is hard to decipher who she is and why she’s there – her appearances suggest a narrator popping onstage intermittently, more like an admonition, a fortune teller or simply dramatic relief than a representation of the feminine ideal she is known to be.
Elzhbeta Kviatkovska danced the lead of “Carmen” with Slavomir Vozniak as Don Jose and Sergei Basaliev as the toreador Eskamillo. Kviatkovska epitomizes loose behavior with an aggressive nature. She sits on the exercise ball, legs spread in second position, smoking a real cigar onstage, and then slowly walks around the ball as Don Jose sits on it, attracting him with animal magnetism in every step. She places her cigar in Vozniak’s lips and after a brief dancing interlude, runs offstage. She is replaced by seven men in loose-fitting shirts, all smoking cigars and moaning aloud. The implication is post-coital satisfaction mode. Ek adds voices to his staging – these dancers shout, speak, mumble, moan, scream. It doesn’t aid the plot so much as it shocks and distracts from the movement, approaching “theatre” more than simply being “dance”.
By the time the men fill the stage and puff their cigars for a good five minutes, the stench drifting into the audience is notable and again distracting. Woe to any poorly vented theatres that present this work - their oxygen levels will be minimal.
Symbolic innuendoes are sprinkled throughout the performance during Carmen’s flirtations with Escamillo, a personification of the type of man that Carmen finds irresistible. A pas de deux between Kviatkovska and Vozniak contains further symbolism – she pulls a red scarf out from his jacket in a long string of red. The metaphor – taking his heart – is well displayed. At the end of the dance, he lies on the floor, she lays the flat red scarf over his head, and runs off. Mikaela enters and exits, again like a cloud. Vozniak kills the Officer, danced serenely by Voitsek Varshavski, with whom Carmen has had an affair, and the ballet finishes with the same firing squad sequence that opens the piece, as the viewers come full circle to the story behind Don Jose’s execution. Ek does an innovative job at translating the historical classic into his own language of dance – he leans heavily on symbolism and, in the absence of classicism, traditionalism or conservatism this becomes the basis for his choreographic vocabulary.
The second piece, “Kak by”, or “As if”, is a bizarre, metaphorical depiction of one man’s dream that, the program notes states, “changes him”. The strange events might be a dream or may be reality, it’s not clear. The story line begins with a man sleeping on stage in a woman’s coat and shoes. He picks a woman in a man’s suit and shoes, from the first row of the audience and swishes her over the edge of the stage and up onto it. They dance and he puts her in a suitcase. A long interval ensues in which the man and suitcase woman are absent from the stage. Instead, a long green wall appears, about 8 feet tall behind which balloons appear every few feet. The balloons pop in sequence to music that sounds like a steam engine train. People’s heads appear above the wall, walking, running, and other people appear in front of it.
A lone girl stares at a red balloon that flies up towards the sky and away from her. Six women in front of the wall run toward six men behind it. The men reach their arms over the wall, placing their hands over the women's faces. The women shake from (implied) suffocation and then grab the hands and make sucking/kissing sounds. One begins to accept this as performance art or symbolic stage presentation rather than dance.
A flat wooden house is brought onstage, three couples dressed in 1940’s style garments dance, and a man hangs himself in the doorway of the house, but by his foot rather than by his neck. The couples kneel, open their mouths as if singing or screaming in mourning and the stage clears. Another couple enters – young and in love. They dance together, he pulls up her socks in a simple gesture of care. He lies on the floor and her fingers tiptoe over his body. They exit, she using a squirt gun to shoot water into his mouth as he crawls backwards offstage.
The balloon theme reappears, people with balloons under their clothing that are then popped flat onstage.
The initial man reenters, this time in the clothes of the woman, and he opens the suitcase. She emerges, in her proper coat (the one he was originally wearing), they hug, and the story ends.
Ek’s work is not balletic. It sometimes isn't even dance-oriented. If psychological insight is offered, it is buried so deeply within symbolic interaction between the onstage artists that it is difficult to decipher. The use of props – cigars, scarves, movable walls, balloons, suitcases – is only one of Ek's signatures. His modern movement and choice of subject matter are swathed in modern symbolism, and offer less food for choreographic analysis than for overall performance presentation analysis. If you're not expecting "Swan Lake", you won't leave disappointed.
Edited by Staff.
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