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by on 29 May 2022

Slain by Daring Passion


by Didy Veldman, music by Dave Price after Georges Bizet

Bird and Carrot Productions at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Southbank Centre until 29th May

Review by Suzanne Frost

Fearless.  Passionate.  Dramatic.  Daring.  All the characteristics that are traditionally attributed to Carmen could just as well be true about Natalia Osipova, who has reached a point in her career where she seems to be much more than simply one of the legendary ballerinas of our time.  Her personality and star power is so large these days, it transcends any role she might interpret on stage.  So it feels almost inevitable that when looking for a new full length dance piece to create, her eyes lit up, according to the programme notes, at the thought of playing Carmen, and thanks to her celebrity and standing within the dance world, she was not only able to fill the Southbank Centre but also pull together an impressive collective of artistic collaborators, first and foremost the beautiful Dutch contemporary choreographer Didy Veldman. 

I first came across Veldman’s work in The Knot, her 2018 work exploring the symbolisms and gestures of wedding ceremonies, and what I saw was pure poetry.  Veldman is a choreographer with such clear movement vocabulary, a pureness of emotion, a simplicity in storytelling, such that every visual lands with the intended impact.  Effortlessly she moves between fun, playful moods to thoughtful intimate moments that reveal the artists’ inner complexities and vulnerability. 

Carmen opens with Natalia entering simply as Natalia, in a grey tee-shirt and socks, an artist ready to work in the rehearsal studio, which is hinted at in Nina Kobiashvili’s sparse set by just a sofa, a mirror and a few bits of costume on hangers.  Composer Dave Price’s original score deconstructs and reimagines motives of Bizet’s popular crowd pleasers until they sound familiar yet entirely new.  The small five strong ensemble of artists portray a company in the process of creating a film based on Carmen.  Their relationship at the beginning of the creative process is one of friendship and enthusiasm to collaborate.  Jason Kittelberger as Don Jose and Hannah Ekholm as his girlfriend Michaela are blissfully loved-up, and both the director-Escamillo (English National Ballet’s parting star Isaac Hernandez) and the cameraman Eryck Brahmania are, in a professional way, obsessed with their leading lady. 

Veldman cleverly uses the tropes of film making to zoom in on the action in an exaggerated slow motion sequence that shows Osipova switching on her star power for her adoring fans.  Shortly after, she pulls away the mask of the celebrity persona revealing the dancer’s complicated relationship with the mirror in an intimate solo full of self-doubt.

No such anxieties seem to trouble Escamillo, a movie director so bursting with confidence and energy he also stars in his own film.  Isaac Hernandez, in his last London performance before moving to San Francisco ballet, lends all his sure-footed virtuosity to the character, but he seems terribly young and innocent next to the brooding intensity that Jason Kittelberger is able to bring to his Jose.  Partners in real life, he alone can match Osipova’s daring artistry perfectly, and the couple’s chemistry is showcased in a luscious striking pas de deux that sees Osipova positively melting into him. 

As an artist relentlessly seeking to challenge herself, the risk-taking abandonment that she brings to the stage is potentially even better served in contemporary dance than it ever was in any of the great classical roles that made her a star of the ballet world.  Carmen – Natalia, the leading lady, the main character, is unapologetic about stealing Jose.  Poor Michaela, an ever ungrateful part to play, is firmly degraded to supporting cast, both on camera and off, and we see the shifting backstage relationships between the performers influencing their work.  The relationship between Michaela and Jose goes sour, while the intimacy between director and leading lady intensifies.  Is it still a purely professional obsession?  Is he giving his Carmen notes on her performance in that private backroom, or is it something more?  As the lines between life and art get increasingly blurred it becomes harder and harder to distinguish which emotions are real and which are acted.  Jose, suspiciously watching the alleged affair, is positively eaten up by jealousy running through every fibre of his body. 

With Carmen being such a popular story, we all know – or think we know – how the tragedy unfolds from here.  Prosper Mérimée wrote his Carmen as a deeply superstitious character who foresees her demise through dark omens – a crack of vulnerability in her fearless armour.  Similarly, Osipova’s performance armour starts to show cracks as she visibly detaches both from Jose and from her role as Carmen, whose persona she reluctantly puts on one more time for a promotional photoshoot using props and costumes that riff off typical Carmen clichés: a red cape, a matador hat, bullfighting banderillos. 

In the end, Carmen dies multiple times, as the scene is repeated again and again with the director never quite happy with the footage.  You can see the exhaustion of the artists having to portray such intense emotions.  While Escamillo comforts Carmen between takes nobody seems to notice the toll the filming takes on Jose …

The ending still manages to completely surprise, and at the same time it is entirely convincing.  This Carmen is, to use a phrase of today’s popular language, a woman who slays – not one to be slain. 

Suzanne Frost, May 2022

Photography by Amanda Fordyce and Annabel Moeller

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