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Dancing "Carmen", Dancing Freedom:

Antonio Gades' Dance Adaptation in the Light of a Long and Enduring Genealogy

by Rosella Simonari

June 2006 -- Italy

In popular imagination, Carmen embodies the perfect femme fatale whose seductive power leads men to perdition. Within her story, Carmen is a seductress, but she is also is a lot more. She is an independent woman, loyal only to her Gypsy community. She is smart and self-assertive. Born out of French writer Propser Mérimée’s pen, she reached world-wide fame thanks to Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera adaptation which simplified the story and added some characters like Micaela and Escamillo. In the opera, Carmen’s complexity emerges through the vocal versatility of the mezzo soprano who sings the main role. Her complexity is, therefore, not immediately apparent through the storyline. This gap possibly explains why Carmen has come to be seen as a symbol of female seduction in the numerous film and dance adaptations that flourished in the twentieth century. Among the most interesting adaptations in dance are those created by Roland Petit, Alberto Alonso, Mats Ek and Antonio Gades. In particular Gades’ version emerges for its shift in perspective in representing the figure of the protagonist.

The first choreography dedicated to “Carmen” was created in 1949 by French choreographer and dancer Roland Petit, and it debuted in London at what was then the Prince Theatre. His “Carmen” was one act, five scenes. It was impeccably interpreted by Zizi Jeanmaire who was literally transformed into the protagonist. He made her cut her hair short and have her skin white “as a Pierrot”. Her costumes in the second and third scenes were to be corseted and with almost no skirt so as to leave her interminable legs totally exposed to the gaze of José, danced by Petit himself. This production was a great success and toured in Europe and the United States. Petit’s “Carmen” was stripped of its Gypsy flavour.  The protagonist looked like a French music-hall diva, and Spanish quotations appeared within the dance, including the splendid high paced zapateado done en pointe by Jeanmaire and the toreador moves performed by Petit during his introductory solo.

Another important adaptation was devised by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso in 1967 with Bizet’s music arranged by Rodion Shchedrin and Carmen interpreted by Maya Plisetkaya, also wife of the composer. Alonso’s “Carmen” was a more abstract work whose focus was on the main characters: Carmen, José, Toreador and the interesting figure of Fate, dressed in a black leotard costume and danced by a ballerina as a kind of alter ego to Carmen. Alonso said that he introduced some steps from Cuban dances. Among the various pas de deux and solo pieces, the final pas de quatre between the four above mentioned characters creates a dynamic context.. First Fate plays the role of a bull with Toreador, and then Carmen enters fighting with José. Carmen moves towards Toreador and Fate dances with José until he, taken by jealousy, dances again with Carmen and finally stabs her.

Shchedrin’s musical arrangement has been used in subsequent “Carmen” adaptations. One of the most controversial examples was that created by Swedish choreographer Mats Ek. When Ek was commissioned by the Spanish Ministry of Culture to celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America, he presented his “Carmen” as parody and delved into the characters’ psychology. Ana Laguna as the Spanish Gypsy was particularly irreverent and explicit in her eroticism and she often smoked a cigar on stage. José was seen as a particularly young and fragile character, whose bond with Carmen was based on love. At the same time, Carmen’s relationship with Toreador, virile and imposing, was merely sexual. Furthermore, Ek re-elaborated the figure of Micaela from the opera and presented the most enigmatic figure of the piece, M, (José’s) mother and death. In Spanish these three words begin with ‘m’ [Micaela, madre, muerte] and that is why he chose to use only the initial. M is with José during all the crucial moments of his journey towards his own death: when he meets Carmen, when he kills a man for jealousy, after he has killed Carmen. Developed and interpreted by Ek’s long time collaborator, Italian dancer Pompea Santoro, M was dressed in purple and she was characterised by an undulating back movement.

These adaptations are all excellent in terms of choreography invention, narrative articulation, technique execution and role interpretation. They all provide fundamental insights into the figure of the Spanish Gypsy. However, they do not question the figure of Carmen as a cultural construction and as a femme fatale. In this sense Antonio Gades’ adaptation stands out. As Ek did in his own way, Gades returned to the original aspect of the Spanish heroine when he created a theatrical and film version in 1983. Both done in collaboration with Spanish director Carlos Saura, they became an instant success. Even though the film had a more complex narrative structure which focused on the actual creation of the character of Carmen, the choreographies were more or less left intact and they focused on a Carmen whose most important ideal was freedom. As Gades himself used to say, “When she loves openly she says it, and when she stops loving again she says it. Carmen is a free woman…Carmen has always been treated as a frivolous woman, a man-eater, but she has something essential that is very far away from all this: her class awareness and her nobility.” In Gades’ version Carmen is portrayed as extremely sensual with her movements and allures, but she is also very charismatic and independent.

Gades’ “Carmen” is nowadays a classic of flamenco dance and it has recently been re-constructed by the Compañía Antonio Gades, directed by his long time collaborator Stella Arauzo, who also superbly dances the principal role. After the choreographer passed away in 2004, the Foundation in his name carried on several projects in order to preserve and perpetrate his legacy and work: a gala in his honour, a luxury book of photographs, and a website. The next step was to begin touring with the Company, and “Carmen” seemed a perfect choice. As Arauzo herself said, it was Gades’ most famous work and it embodied his unique approach to flamenco. Plus, as his daughter María Esteve, now director of the Foundation, added, it is a very important work within his creative production.

Recently performed at the Pergolesi Theatre in Jesi, Italy, it received an enthusiastic series of applauses during the opening scene and had  three encores in the end. Unlike the film whose development is partly conditioned by dialogue, the theatrical version is all marvelously sustained by dancing.  The opening resembles the film with a scene dedicated to a class rehearsing some steps under the direction of a choreographer, originally interpreted by Gades and here intensively danced by Adrián Galia. In this scene there is no music and the rhythm is produced by the dancers’ zapateado [the shoe beating onto the floor], perfectly performed in unison. After this there is the presentation of the main characters: Torero, interpreted by Antonio Hidalgo; Husband, played by Joaquín Mulero; don Josè, played by Galia himself and Carmen, dressed in a flaming red dress. The most impressive scenes are those centred on duels, like the one between Carmen and Manolita in the tobacco factory scene and that between don José and Husband, a scene characterized by the use of sticks to implement the percussive rhythm of their feet articulation. The tobacco scene is particularly involving. It is a choral piece where the cigarette girls divide into two groups, one supporting Carmen, the other Manolita. It is exemplary of Gades’ flamenco style, with the wide use of space perfectly intertwined with the zapateado, taconeo [the use of heels] and the other foot steps. Furthermore, the fact that it is an all-female piece highlights even more the active employment of skirts in flamenco dance. Antonio Gades’ “Carmen” is a powerful work and it constitutes a turning point within its long and still fertile genealogy.

First of all it employs flamenco dance which establishes a direct bond with the original character. Carmen in Propser Mérimée’s 1845 novella is presented as a Spanish Gypsy who is particularly good at dancing the ‘romalis’, which corresponds to what, a few years later, will be called flamenco. Second of all it focuses on Carmen’s free spirit and class awareness, two aspects which are often neglected in favor of a more seductive image of Carmen as a femme fatale. Again in the novella “Carmen” prefers to die rather than lose her freedom and be controlled by José. In the opera this aspect is not as highlighted, but it is well expressed in the final duet between Carmen and José. Third of all it represents a Spanish perspective on a French cultural construction. “Carmen” was part of the French Romantic fascination with the Spanish culture and, although Mérimée was quite accurate in his representation, his Carmen was soon transformed into a stereotypical figure. By creating a flamenco Carmen, Gades placed the heroine once again into her own cultural context. Furthermore, Gades’ flamenco is a particular kind of flamenco. It is devoid of virtuosity and ornaments; it is clean and essential. Gades was the first flamenco choreographer and dancer to create a narrative work entirely sustained by dancing and “Carmen” represents one of his best achievements. 

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