Two Ballets: L’Arlesienne and Carmen

Obsession and drama from Roland Petit

Reviewed by Ann Hunt

Roland Petit was a brilliant and inventive French choreographer, whose work throughout the 1930’s until he died in 2011 was received with great acclaim and inspired many others.

This is the first time any of his ballets have been performed in New Zealand.

The two works performed both deal with obsession. The first, L’Arlesienne, was created in 1974 for the Ballet National de Marseille, which Petit founded.

It is a dramatic work with two strong roles for the principal dancers.

Fine performances in L’Arlesienne

Roland Petit

Set in summer in Provence, Frederi (Shaun James Kelly,) is the fiancé of Vivette (Madeleine Graham.) As his wedding approaches, he becomes obsessed by an unknown, unseen woman – ‘the girl from Arles.’ We never see her and she may be a figment of his imagination.

Despite Vivette’s efforts to dissuade him and to regain his love, Frederi loses his reason and ultimately his life.

In the leading roles, Kelly and Graham are very good indeed. Kelly is a fine dramatic dancer, whose technique shows great clarity and precision.  He utilises his scissoring elevation to great effect in the ballet’s closing sequences, when he is unable to control his obsession.

He totally commands the stage as he gradually loses his hold on reality.  It will be most interesting to see what future roles the Company give him where he can employ his very considerable interpretive skills. (Petrouchka springs to mind…)

As Vivette, Graham’s unrequited love for Frederi is movingly portrayed, as she gradually realises he is beyond her help. She is lyrical dancer with a good classical line and beautiful feet.

Flawed choreography

But in spite of these fine performances, the work has dated.

This is particularly apparent in the choreography for the corps de ballet, who, in spite of this, dance very well indeed.

Frederi’s splayed fingers, meant to portray despair and longing, are over-used, becoming somewhat ‘hammy’ and fix the work firmly in the 1970’s. (These gestures were also frequently used in 1960 choreographies.)

Added to this the corps’s faux folk dance elements are at times cringe making.

Impressive sets, costumes and lighting

Rene Allio’s simple set design is most effective. A wheat field in high summer sets the scene in Provence, and is somewhat reminiscent of paintings by Van Gogh.

Above this is a slanted rustic and claustrophobic wooden ceiling.

As the work darkens, these elements alter completely and are replaced by black enveloping curtains symbolising Frederi’s psychological disintegration.

Costumes and lighting by Christine Laurent and Jean-Michel Desire respectively, are most appropriate.

The classic Carmen story

Petit’s Carmen is recognised as a classic of its genre. It was first performed in London in 1949 and is still frequently featured by companies worldwide.

This too has choreographic elements that date it, but overall the work is so strong -especially given the high standard of performance demonstrated this evening – that it doesn’t matter.

The ballet is in one act with five scenes. The scenario is well known and follows that of the opera of the same name. Carmen, a girl who works in a cigarette factory, seduces Don Jose, a soldier. She persuades him to help her and her bandit friends rob and kill a man.

Tiring of Don Jose, she leaves him for the glamorous Toreador. Broken and despairing, Don Jose confronts Carmen outside the arena and consumed with jealous rage, kills her.

Harmonious rendition

Carmen performed by Mayu Tanigaito (Photo credit: Ross Brown)

All the components of the ballet are totally in harmony – choreography, music, (Georges Bizet – not played live here,) set and costumes by Antoni Clave, and lighting design again by Desire.

The casting of Carmen and Don Jose is crucial to the ballet’s drama and success. There must be chemistry between the two and in Mayu Tanigaito’s defiant Carmen and Daniel Gaudiello’s infatuated Don Jose, there definitely was.

Tanigaito is well suited to the role of Carmen. Technically very strong with impressive balance, a beautiful line and high extensions, she is an able actor, and brings out Carmen’s fierce independence and sensuality.

She shows us a woman who knows the power of her own sexuality and is not afraid to use it. Carmen is a role for which she’s been waiting a long time.

Guest Artist Gaudiello is an outstanding Don Jose, charismatic, technically superb and sexy as hell! From his first entrance his command is obvious.  He shows us the soldier that he is, with a core of steel.

In Scene Two, he dances a stunning Habanera, with legs sharp angled like knives. His upper torso brilliantly captures the choreography’s Flamenco elements, with the toreador’s passes and holds clearly delineated.

As the Toreador, Jacob Chown is amusing, but could ratchet up the camp even more. This should be  a burlesque characterisation after all. (On opening night, Paul Matthews got it just right.)

Kohei Iwamoto’s Chief Bandit is also amusing and very well danced. But we do not see the dark underbelly of this character.

Filippo Valmorbida’s  Second Bandit has personality plus and is a great foil, while

the corps de ballet have a great time prancing about smoking cigarettes, but are also technically very sound.

Wonderful sets, colour and lighting

Clave’s vibrant set designs have stood the test of time brilliantly. He frames Scenes Two and Three very theatrically with draped curtains.

Scene Two in particular glows. Its crimson curtains redolent of blood, passion and sex, are echoed by strings of jewel-like Chinese lanterns. While the large cartwheels in Scene Four add drama but also seem symbolic of clock faces, of time passing and turning.

The finale outside the arena with its faded poster, scarlet walls, and the multi-coloured hues of the spectators inside the arena is beautifully conceived.

Desire’s terrific lighting illuminates the whole immeasurably.

Building to an intense climax

The work’s climax is incredibly tense: the insistent drum beat like a blood pulse, accentuating the drama unfolding between Carmen and Don Jose.

In the beginning, their bodies face each other poised defiantly, just as the Toreador and the bull do. Petit’s genius touch being the irony at the end of flung hats within the arena, as Don Jose stabs Carmen and kills her.

The battle won inside. The battle lost without.

This season ends with two performances on Saturday, March 25, and casts will change.