3.0 out of 5.0 stars

“An explorative and stark view of the Carmen story”

Carmen – a name synonymous with the world renowned Bizet opera and the fiery, red-hot temptress irresistible to all men who cross her path. A story of love, lust and jealousy loved by audiences and known across many artistic repertoires globally. English National Ballet’s UK premiere of Johan Inger’s production is an intriguing prospect. 

From the outset it is clear that this will be an atmospheric and contemporary reimagining,  filled with choreographic devices – the exposition presents a dark stage filled only by a dark masked figure and the brilliantly technical and transformative Francesca Velicu playing the character of Boy. Both characters constantly reflect the juxtapositioning chaos and hope present in the original story by Prosper Mérimée. The addition of these characters helps move the action along and create an impactful watch, their presence adding a visceral undertone in both the physical and figurative sense. 



A commanding and strong Zuñiga appears on stage, the officer in charge and Carmen’s main lover is worn flawlessly by James Streeter who showcases the ever-present masculinity and machismo in the story fully. Carmen’s first entrance is presented alongside a flurry of ruffled, short dresses, powerfully showcasing David Delfín’s symbolic use of colour as a powerful tool within the costume design throughout. Minju Kang stands out through the symbolic use of the little red dress and interprets Carmen’s character with a feline slyness and a stoic self-assurance. This comes to light in the seductive pas de deux with dance partner Rentaro Nakaaki, playing Don José. It must be noted that the  production lends itself mostly to Don José’s perspective rather then Carmen’s, and Nakaaki plays this with enormous breath and emotion, the character’s turmoil palpable and suffocating. 

There is a pointedly stripped down element to the piece, from the sleek set design to Tom Visser’s use of lighting to convey emotions and place. Most notably, they seemed to stray away from the outwardly Hispanic setting in time and place where the original novella is set (apart from the iconic frill of Flamenco inspired dresses and Spanish words quipped by the dancers). Consequently, this does dull some of the passion and fiery persona known to past Carmen productions, instead to be replaced by a rather more bleak and lacklustre persona – not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely a different and more edgy one. This persona presents quite a foreboding environment accentuated further by Marc Alvarez’s additional music layered alongside George Bizet’s and Rodion Shchedrin’s original score.  It certainly creates impactful moments – one being, the murder of Zuñiga at the closure of Act I, the gunfire of Don José’s gun followed by a highly stylised choreographed piece of the black-clad shadows carrying his body into oblivion. 

An explorative and stark view of the Carmen story which focuses on the violence and human experience present in society.

Official Website | Photos credited to English National Ballet’s Carmen, Laurent Liotardo | Written by Camila Sayers | 29 March 2024