If medals were awarded for the number of ballets that take a particular opera as their text, Bizet’s well-worn Carmen would carry the prize away, far and away in the case of Kent Stowell’s multimedia work for Pacific Northwest Ballet, premiering January 31, 2002 at the Mercer Arts Arena, in Seattle. Like other Carmens of recent note (Matthew Bourne’s gratuitously bloody Car Men, or Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal’s hip and world-wise treatment of 2001, for example), Stowell’s choreography illuminates the original work while exploring a thematically related aspect of contemporary culture. Discovery is achieved through the recorded element, created by video artist Iole Alessandrini.
It is a remarkably literary ballet. It places Carmen among several other familiar dance pieces in a frame story of love, loss and disenchantment that unfolds in a dance company (a dance factory, rather than a cigar factory). Stowell depends largely on flamenco for choreography of ensemble dances: bravura and sexuality rooted in conflict. The set is made up of tubular, movable frames with a video screen backdrop. These structures delineate, alternately, studios and performance venues. Within them, dancers practice and perform, in addition to Carmen, Five Tangos and Le Corsaire; Balanchine’s La Valse, Chaconne and Apollo; and Stowell’s own Romeo and Juliet, and Cinderella.
Like the cast of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, dancers in practice clothes leak onto the stage before the house lights are dimmed. Their warm up is paralleled by an orchestral tune up, and a collage construction of live video and rehearsal tapes fills the screen. The goal is to bring the audience on stage with the dancers, showing the action from angles it otherwise could not possibly see, and to foreshadow events.
During the Habanero, for example, as Ariana Lallone, in character as Carmen awaits the attention of Jeff Stanton’s Jose, the rehearsal tape behind them is run in reverse. Therefore, on video, the characters are already making love, and we see something of motivation, and the psychology of intent. This juxtaposition also reflects upon – if choreography is a form of contemplation – the nature of time. Stowell shows us a smear in which multiple versions of the present moment occur simultaneously, rather than unwavering forward progress.
The other dancers in the piece serve as foils to the central characters. The superb technician, Patricia Barker, as Michaela, in a Nocturne of poignancy and tenderness, captures our hearts, and nearly steals the show. Stanko Milov’s Escamillo, in a pyrotechnical portrayal of the insouciant matador, is a flashing mirror of the heedless Carmen. An interesting element of characterization is that Lallone’s in-the-studio Carmen, the ballerina en alter ego, is reserved, thoughtful, cautious. In the coda, Lallone is ahead of the corps by one beat, out of sync with her society. Stanton’s martial performance with a mini-corps of picadors reveals him as a boy among boys, and draws attention to his sense of entitlement as the real source of his love and sorrow
The second cast, with principals Carrie Imler and Olivier Wevers in the lead roles convey different personalities. Imler is a cupie-doll Carmen, and Wevers, her would-be lover, an adolescent egoist. Lallone’s Carmen neither asserts nor embodies, but simply is mystery. She exists outside of what is knowable, and her abandonment, her wildness, and her independence finally elude us.