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Ballet Hispánico
CARMEN.maquia (2012) [68:45]
Music: Georges Bizet (1838-1875) and Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908)
Choreography: Gustavo Ramírez Sansano
Don José - Christopher Bloom
Carmen - Kimberly van Woesik
Michaela - Melissa Fernandez
Escamillo - Mario Ismael Espinoza
Club Havana (2000) [24:45]
Music: Israel López (1918-2008), Rubén Gonzales (1919-2003), A.K. Salim (b. 1922), Perez Prado (1916-1989) and Francisco Repilado (1907-2003)
Choreography: Pedro Ruiz
Dancers: Martina Calcagno, Shelby Colona, Kassandra Kruz, Mario Ismael Espinoza, Melissa Fernandez, Mark Gieringer, Christopher Hernandez, Johan Rivera Mendez, Eila Valls, Lyvan Verdecia and company
Orchestras: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Apollo Symphony Orchestra and Arte Ensemble [conductors not specified]
rec. Mesa Arts Center, Arizona, 16 September 2016
Filmed in High Definition
Mastered from an HD source
Picture format: 1080i, 16:9
Sound formats: PCM stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.0, surround sound
Region code: A / B / C
C MAJOR Blu-ray 738904 [104 mins]

Almost five decades after its first release, I suspect that many MusicWeb readers will still recall the 1968 Melodiya LP Carmen ballet. On that disc the strings and percussion of the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, directed by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, presented the world premiere recording of Rodion Shchedrin's ballet Carmen suite. Featuring a dramatic cover image of charismatic ballerina Maya Plisetskaya - the composer's wife - posed against a blood-red background, and boasting demonstration-quality sound that seemed to jump right out of the speakers, that fondly-recalled LP had a place in virtually all my friends' collections at that time.

Premiered at the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1967, Carmen suite, as choreographed by Alberto Alonso ramped up the story's erotic aspects. That was enough to outrage the opinionated and notoriously prudish Soviet culture minister Yekaterina Furtseva ("We cannot allow them to make a whore out of Carmen, the heroine of the Spanish people"). She initially tried to suppress the ballet completely (the hilarious story of the standoff between minister Furtseva and prima ballerina assoluta Plisetskaya may be found at Wikipedia) but, with the proposed ban quickly overruled by her more temperate superiors, Carmen suite - with the assistance of that best-selling LP - soon became the most popular balletic version of Bizet's familiar opera.

It is, however, by no means the only one. Carmen's dramatic story and its colourful score offer well-nigh irresistible opportunities to choreographers, (re)arrangers of the music and dancers keen to exploit flashy opportunities to make their mark. It wasn't too long ago, after all, that I reviewed Carlos Acosta's 2015 production, choreographed for the Royal Ballet, when it made its appearance on DVD (review).

CARMEN.maquia, choreographed by Spanish-born Gustavo Ramírez Sansano and premiered in 2012, is certainly one of the more interesting recent versions of the story. Slightly longer than Acosta's - and markedly more so than Alonso/Shchedrin's - it still pares the story to its essentials. Whereas Carmen suite had clearly been designed by her husband as a showcase for Madame Plisetskaya, CARMEN.maquia gives just as much emphasis to Don José as to the eponymous seductress. Indeed, it's the emotionally traumatised and physically wrecked lover who actually bookends the piece, thanks to yet another instance of the currently fashionable directorial conceit of opening a production and closing it with identical tableaux. Only two other roles make any significant individual impression: toreador Escamillo emotes and strides lustily about the stage like nobody’s business, while Micaela simpers meekly in the manner of someone who knows that she’s never going - and quite frankly doesn't deserve - to get her man. It’s worth pointing out, however, that Ballet Hispánico has an excellent corps de ballet, several of whom, playing for gentle laughs with some inventive stage business, make a positive impression.

The quality of the dancing is, I'm pleased to say, uniformly high. The two principals, Kimberly van Woesik and Christopher Bloom, have been well cast, are technically highly proficient and interact well together. While the choreography of the piece is angular and often abrupt rather than flowing and overtly beautiful, this isn't one of those modern productions that will frighten the horses - and it certainly doesn't seem to faze the enthusiastic Arizona audience. The set is kept very simple and the decor is entirely black and white, so that at times only the dancers' skin-toned faces give away the fact that we're not watching a recording in high-quality monochrome. The occasional use of some famous images on cloths hung above the stage references Pablo Picasso: perhaps I missed the point there, but I'm not sure that they necessarily added anything extra to the production.

The disc is filled out with another Ballet Hispánico production, Club Havana. There's no discernible story to this one. It's simply a sequence of short numbers - a son, a mambo, a cha-cha-cha, a bolero, a rhumba and a conga - such as might have been played and danced to in a Havana nightclub in 1950s pre-Castro Cuba. Some are performed by a small number of dancers, others by the whole company. Just as in CARMEN.maquia, the music is not performed live but on a pre-recorded soundtrack.

I have to say that Club Havana proved something of a disappointment. Quite inappropriately, it kept reminding me of nothing so much as the Latin American round in the old BBC TV Come dancing contests hosted by the late Peter West. While the individual dance numbers are undoubtedly well choreographed, they emerge, at least to my own mind, as staged exhibitions of technique rather than something that can be described as ballet. As a result, I was quite glad when, in a shower of confetti falling from the rafters, it was over in less than half an hour. Club Havana is probably something of a crowd pleaser when seen live - the enthusiastic Arizonans give it a standing ovation - but I can’t help feeling that it’s an essentially meretricious and ultimately rather vacuous creation.

Even if Club Havana wasn't to my taste, the way that both it and CARMEN.maquia have been filmed for this release is first class. Top quality sound is married to superb Blu-ray picture definition, with no hint of the juddering that sometimes affects quick lateral tracking shots in that format. A skilled director has clearly supervised the filming, using mainly long- and medium-shots that keep the dancers’ full bodies on display so that we don’t lose any of their all-important footwork. Where close-ups are employed, it’s generally when the on-stage action has come to a temporary halt. As a result, we don’t miss any important details of the dancing.

One deficiency with this release is, however, worth noting. In the past few months I have reviewed two discs in the C Major Lincoln Center at the movies series (the other was the New York City Ballet's George Balanchine's The nutcracker - review). While the actual performances were very enjoyable, they were both marketed with totally inadequate accompanying booklets. When a greater amount of space is given over to listing the backstage executives of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Ballet Hispánico and the Mesa Arts Center, Arizona, than to providing any useful information about the actual productions on the disc, the choreographers or the dancers, something isn't right.

Nonetheless, this release deserves a hearty welcome. Admittedly, CARMEN.maquia wouldn’t have been to the taste of Comrade Furtseva – who, incidentally, retired in disgrace within a few years of her clash with Maya Plisetskaya. The rest of us, however, will relish the opportunity to watch an innovative and enjoyable new danced version of Carmen that certainly deserves to become better and more widely known.

Rob Maynard



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