State Street Ballet Revives William Soleau’s Imaginative “Carmen” at Santa Barbara’s Granada Theater

New York choreographer William Soleau and State Street Ballet have had a good run. With both full length ballets and shorter works, such as his revealing “Appalachian Spring” (2011), Soleau and the company have created a bond that feels like a natural stronghold not only for his amalgamated movement style but also for vibrant performances. That was certainly the case on Saturday with the company’s revival of Soleau’s “Carmen”, which has grown from an original one act suite into a full length ballet. Here is a company of dancers looking beyond Balanchine and European “du jour” choreography and building a repertory that is entirely their own, one enthusiastically embraced by Santa Barbara audiences.

The music and stories for Soleau’s State Street Ballet choreography have ranged widely, “Carmina Burana”, “Starry Night” with music by Bartok and others, “American Tango” backed by American ballroom era bands, and “Carmen” set to Rodion Shchedrin’s unusual recomposition of original music from Bizet’s opera. The music plays an especially critical role in Soleau’s “Carmen”, darkening the story and lifting it beyond pastiche and the colorful superficiality of many of the existing orchestral versions. Scored for strings and an over-sized, varied percussion section, much of the music is wonderfully distorted, making it a perfect point of departure to reclaim the story as a stand-alone ballet scenario. The music (1967) was used first by both Bolshoi and Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

The story rises or falls on the effectiveness of the love triangle of Carmen, her lover Don Jose (a military man), and Escamillo the bull fighter. Two thirds of that triangle shone brightly with both Lelia Fossek in the title role and Ryan Camou as Don Jose showing just how effective a long term dance partnership can be. Their numerous duos and solo dancing made a vivid statement that at times overwhelmed visiting guest artist Randy Herrera’s Escamillo. Mr. Camou was clearly the go-to guy when the “heat “was needed, but still, there were exceptional moments for the three as an ensemble as in the simultaneous action pas de deux from Act II, and in the gypsy camp scene where they trade off partnering Ms Fossek. Also excellent was Cecily Stewart as Micaela, Don Jose’s betrothed. She was particularly affecting in the gloomy and sentimental duo with Mr. Camou in Act I and also in the phantom pas de deux at the end of  Act I. The supporting cast, doubling as gypsies, a military guard, girls at the Sevilla tobacco factory and townsfolk at a local taverna, added shifting tableaus and full throttle ensemble dancing.

Soleau’s movement choices steer clear of the usual cliches of balletic classicism, but  strike glancing references at modern dance idioms and social dance. The State Street dancers do excellent work syncretizing his influences into a cohesive, real-life aesthetic. The shifting points of view make the dancing seem as if it’s happening in the round. The set (Mark Somerfield), a grouping of short ramps, sketches out a mock arena. In the final scene, the limp body of Carmen slides down one of them, an echo of the carnage of the life of the bull ring.

The ballet is bookended by two views of Don Jose’s execution. The first, a prologue, is seen as a flash forward, the second, rotated one hundred and eighty degrees, brings us finally to the edge of his dark obsessions.  As the fusiliers mime the actions of firing squad, Don Jose drops in a slow motion back bend to the ebbing rumblings of the orchestra and distant, chiming bells. It was a theatrically chilling closing that felt more modern than Bizet’s nineteenth century story.

(The reviewed performance took place on Saturday April 5, 2014. Additional excerpts from Bizet’s music have been added to the original Shchedrin score for this produciton. Shchedrin is Russian and originally worked with the Bolshoi and Cuban National Ballet in developing the music.Costumes were by A. Christina Gianinni. Additional painted scenic designs were by Stefania Piazzo. The full length “Carmen” premiered with State Street Ballet in 2007. The company is directed by Rodney Gustafson)

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