On Saturday I was very pleased to get to go to the ballet again, with my delightful companion, to see “Carmen.” It was danced by the wonderful Ballet San Jose, with the marvelous orchestration performed by Symphony Silicon Valley. “Carmen” was preceded by the unfortunately titled short piece “Who Cares?” by George Balanchine (e.g. “What are you going to go see?” “Who cares?” “Excuse me?!”). I’d not realized there was a ballet of the opera, but since I love Bizet’s famous music I figured it’d be hard to go wrong. Unfortunately… they managed to. But first the (many) good parts.
The music for “Who Cares?” consisted entirely of songs written by George Gershwin, which were set to dance by his friend George Balanchine. I confess I am not wildly familiar with Gershwin, so I only recognized one piece: “I Got Rhythm.” According to my companion (who also informed me all of the music was Gershwin’s), the tempo had to be slowed down considerably — sort of tamed from its swing roots — but was still performed very nicely. I noticed one point where a jazzy piano bit seemed to have a very slightly different rhythm than a slightly mournful sounding, lower toned brass, although I’m not sure what it was… what’s tonally just above a tuba? Still, the dancer stayed with the piano, and the other instrument caught up very quickly. Honestly, it was sometimes hard for me to tell when the music was aiming for syncopation, so I’m not sure it’s fair to say the piano and the not-a-tuba were that off-beat.
The stage was very, very simple but also, I thought, quite effective. The floor was lit with mingled cool-bluish stripes for a nice effect that hinted at motion, while the backdrop was a black, vaguely New York City silhouette pulled into a tight circle, then repeated twice more in larger size and in lighter tones. The innermost black silhouette served as an excellent foil to the colorful costumes, although the lighting there was very strongly white and, according to my companion, hard on his eyes.
The costumes seemed very clean and simple, continuing with the almost minimalist trappings surrounding the music and dance. The men all had sparkly variations on the formal suit, while the women’s sparkly short flounced skirts and simple V-tops used color to differentiate. The overall effect was pretty and cheery. The dancers themselves performed as beautifully as I’ve come to expect from them, although I was initially surprised to see some moves which were not what I thought “classic” ballet was. Still, after a moment’s thought I realized these were dance moves which went with the music; it worked well overall.
I was delighted to notice something I’d never seen before in the dance as well: a round! In singing, a “round” is when one singer(s) starts a verse, and the second singer(s) comes in with the same verse after the first singer(s) has finished the first line. A well-known example of this is “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” At one point while watching two groups of dancers, I suddenly realized the second group was precisely following the first group’s steps — about one musical line behind them! It was kind of neat to watch. I’m no dance expert, but I do enjoy the imaginative use of stage space by the Ballet San Jose dancers.
That piece was only about 45 minutes long, and then we paused for intermission. Due to a very long work week, my companion was complaining of sleepiness, and wished to get some caffeine into his system. He figured slugging down some lukewarm coffee would be better than snoring, having me poke him fiercely in the middle of the ballet, and having everyone nearby glare at him for the startled, “YEEP!” he would doubtless emit at my doing so. ;)
He also kindly bought me a chocolate chip cookie (a personal favorite, yumm!) and a bottle of water, and since the line was quite long and the man behind the counter was quite rushed, we simply grabbed up our purchases and got out of the way. The coffee was a bit too hot for my companion to simply slug down, so I offered him some of my water. He opened the bottle, poured some in, had a sip… then wrinkled his nose and said amusedly, “Fizzy seltzer coffee! This is a taste sensation I’ll have to avoid in the future.”
The next ballet was “Carmen,” with the marvelous music composed by Georges Bizet and dancing choreographed by Roland Petit. The opera’s story was highly simplified, of course, to fit into ballet form — but the basic theme of the wild, alluring, and free-willed woman who uses and discards men was well maintained. I do not particularly care for this particular mythic theme — it is emblematic of male fear of the sexually free woman, and so the female lead is always killed at story’s end — but I can understand how compelling it was (and, to some degree, still is) for the time.
The sets were curiously agonistic feeling, with a sort of harshly modernistic graffiti effect. There was even a “title-page” to start the ballet, which made me raise an amused eyebrow — could there be anyone there who didn’t know what ballet was being danced? In the first scene I thought the fight scene between Carmen and another woman was very well choreographed; as someone who has done only a tiny bit of fight choreography, I know that takes effort. I also liked the backdrop of the last scene, where the audience has a glimpse of the crowd within the ring where the bullfight is occurring. The hints of movement from the floating draperies around the white, skull-like faces gave a nice feel to the looming ominousness of the ballet’s closure.
All the costuming was quite nice, although there were only hints of Spanish-ness to most of it. The men, for example, had outfits with slight variations on what was ragged and what pale bits stood out from the overall black, which worked very well, I thought. However, the skirts of the cigarette women in the first scene seemed a little too raggedy to me. Their hair all looked like tangled mops as well — I guess to more strongly emphasize Carmen’s sleekly short and gleaming cap of hair. In the second scene in the bar, though, the women had much more dramatic costumes: leotards and corset-like tops without skirts (as my companion put it, “Rar!”). There was a spiffy playing-card effect with the corsets as well: they were vertically split down the middle, with half being black and half either red or a dark yellow (if I’m remembering correctly). I was a bit disconcerted, however, when Carmen makes her grand entrance — in a dull moss green! I don’t know why that particular boring color was chosen.
The women’s outfits weren’t the only sexy part of that scene, of course. The dancing was extremely sensual and lithe, with everyone moving like cats in heat; ballet allows well for that, and the athletic dancers looked particularly marvelous as they did so. I wasn’t entirely sure why they performed a flat, almost dispirited sounding chant during the first deliciously sensual dance with both Carmen and Don Jose; to me, “Bravo,” should suggest excitement rather than boredom. The use of props was well handled, though; the skull on the beautiful woman added the requisite foreshadowing juxtaposition of death with sex, and the chairs not only offered many opportunities for imaginative dancing, but also not-so-subtly suggested the completion of the sexual act.
The scene changes where the dancers distracted the audience for a moment worked intermittently. One of them felt like just a time-waster, but the other worked quite well and seemed to add to the story. I was quite impressed with the body language, especially Carmen’s. During the bar scene she draws Don Jose’s attention quite alluringly — as his pockets are being picked — and later, after he has murdered for her, her body language clearly showed her silently triumphant laughter. The bullfighter too had a dance which marvelously showcased his almost mincing self-centeredness, and I had to grin as I realized it reminded me of Don Jose’s initial dance as well.
The lighting was dim and moody throughout the entire ballet, although there was a pretty effect accomplished during the bar scene, when a multitude of small lights with colored paper shades were hung. Much to my pleasure, Bizet’s beautiful music was movingly played throughout, and in fact almost all of the ballet was performed to the opera’s music. It was only when they departed from Bizet’s score that I thought the choreographer really screwed up — and I choose that harsh phrasing quite deliberately.
Two bits of background information: first, if the bull has been dramatically killed by the toreador, men in the watching crowd will sometimes shout and throw their hats into the ring as an accolade for the toreador’s bravery. Also, in case my readers are not familiar with the plot of the opera “Carmen,” the last scene concludes with Don Jose fiercely arguing with Carmen, berating her for heartlessly leaving him. He ends by murdering Carmen just as the (offstage) bullfighter kills the bull. The bullfighter emerges triumphantly with his admirers, discovering Don Jose still standing over Carmen’s body, and Don Jose is subsequently arrested and taken away.
The ballet, in comparison, has a truly appalling ending which left such a powerfully bad taste in my mouth that it very much shattered my pleasure in the performance. It is during the argument between Don Jose and Carmen that the ballet unfortunately departs from Bizet’s dramatic music: everything is silent but for a powerfully beating drum thundering — in time with Don Jose beating up Carmen! Then, for no apparent reason, Carmen runs onto Don Jose’s knife! As he lays down her dead body, the music suddenly returns to one line of Bizet’s exciting “toreador’s theme” — as hats are thrown out over Don Jose, and the crowd shouts an accolade to the man standing over the dead body of the woman he just murdered.
So in the ballet, not only does Don Jose violently beat up Carmen before murdering her — and getting away with it! -but the crowd apparently approves of this.
In conclusion: “Who Cares?” was lovely, light-hearted, and well-performed. I cannot recommend the ballet “Carmen,” however, considering its tacit approval of violence against women. It left me wondering: what was the choreographer thinking?