DANCING “CARMEN” , DANCING FREEDOM: ANTONIO GADES’ DANCE ADAPTATION IN THE LIGHT OF A LONG AND ENDURING GENEALOGY
In the popular imagination Carmen embodies the perfect femme fatale whose seductive power leads men to perdition. Carmen is a seductress, but she is also is a lot more. She is an independent woman, she is loyal only to her Gypsy community, she is smart and she is 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, it is therefore not immediate through the story line. It is maybe due to this factor that 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. Dance-wise among the most interesting adaptations there are those created by Roland Petit, Alberto Alonso, Mats Ek and Antonio Gades. In particular Gades’ version emerges for its shift in perspective on 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 the then called Prince Theatre. His “Carmen” was in one act and 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. It was a great success and it toured in Europe and the United States. This “Carmen” was stripped of its Gypsy flavour and the protagonist looked like a French music-hall diva. There are Spanish quotations in the dance such as 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. She is a kind of alter ego of Carmen. Alonso said that he introduced some steps from Cuban dances and among the various pas de deux and solo pieces, the final pas de quatre between the four above mentioned characters creates a more dynamic context for is possibly Carmen’s death. First Fate plays the role of a bull with Toreador, 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 largely used in subsequent Carmen adaptations. One of the most controversial examples was that created by Swedish choreographer Mats Ek. Commissioned by the Spanish Ministry of Culture to celebrate the five hundred years of Columbus’ discovery of America, he presented his Carmen in 1992 employing his renowned parodic approach and delving 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 who embodies Micaela, (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 in 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. Santoro also often interpreted the role of Carmen giving it a different shade with respect to the original one danced by Laguna.
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 she openly 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.” 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 again touring with the Company and “Carmen” seemed a perfect choice because, 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 at open scene with three encores in the end. Unlike the film whose development is partly conditioned by dialogues, the theatrical version is all marvellously 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 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 characterised 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 women piece highlights even more the active employment of skirts in flamenco dance. Antonio Gades’ “Carmen” is a powerful work and it constitute a turning point within its long and still fertile genealogy for several reasons.
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 favour 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 once again the heroine into her own cultural context. Furthermore, Gades’ flamenco is a particular kind of flamenco. It is devoid of virtuosism 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.