In Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of OBT 25, a section of the program was titled “Love X3” and highlighted choreographers who have most influenced the company. The performance of the Seguidilla pas de deux from Carmen, celebrates the era and choreographic influence of former Artistic Director Christopher Stowell.
Mr. Stowell, the son of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s founding Artistic Directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, comes from an impressive ballet lineage. He enjoyed a distinguished sixteen-year career at San Francisco Ballet and became OBT’s 2nd Artistic Director from 2003 through 2012. During his tenure he brought works from some of the most celebrated choreographers: Ashton, Balanchine, Robbins, Forsythe and Wheeldon. He created numerous world premieres on OBT, including Carmen in 2011, and he is currently Ballet Master and Assistant to the Artistic Director for San Francisco Ballet.
Mr. Stowell created Carmen with Alison Roper and Chauncey Parsons in the lead roles. Ms. Roper prepared for the role by watching various operatic versions, but no ballet productions. She told me that too often the archetypal ballet “Carmen” tended to be polished. She favored the opera singers’ interpretation of the character, more often “barefoot, a woman who’s not afraid to kick up some dirt.”
The opera was based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, but the story was a ballet first. Marius Petipa, dancer and choreographer with the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, had begun work on a ballet titled Carmen et son Torero two years prior to the novel’s publication. Both Petipa and Bizet were inspired by a narrative poem about the colorful lives of the gypsies in the aptly-titled “The Gypsies” by Alexander Pushkin.
The audience in attendance at Bizet’s 1875 premiere at the Paris theatre, Opéra-Comique, was shocked at the opera’s subject matter. Controversial, violent and racy, the opera was met with silence by the cultural elite who had come to the theatre for family-friendly entertainment. Aristocrats were horrified by the sexuality, violence and crime that ran throughout the work, as well as the shift in main characters. (Audiences had been accustomed to stories about noble, heroic figures, not tales of the troubled working class.) Bizet died at the age of 37, three months after the opera’s premiere, believing his work to be a failure. But when Carmen was presented in Vienna, Bizet’s opera was a smash hit and has proven itself a continued success for over a century.
While the original version was firmly rooted with a strong sense of place, Mr. Stowell chose to have no geographic identity tied to his ballet. (To that end, the costumes, by Mark Zappone, are not the traditional red and black costumes that signal “Spain” to theatregoers. Rather they are tinted in earth tones, with an ombre wash of pale blues, browns, and rusts.) Instead of a sense of place, Mr. Stowell emphasized the characters’ “sense of passion and abandon and danger in the story….without it being set in Seville. It’s the interaction between the characters that I think is the important part.”
The tragedy of the doomed lovers, Carmen and Don José, runs its course. Don José, an off-duty soldier, falls for Carmen, the beautiful, sultry gypsy. She returns his admiration with flirtations, though not heartfelt. When Carmen fights with another village woman and is taken off to jail she is unconcerned. Don José is her prison guard and she knows she can get out using her feminine wiles. The duet performed in OBT 25 plays out as Carmen, with lusty backbends and other ploys, seduces Don José. The fiery, defiant temptress is like a force of nature. She is beautiful and strong-willed and easily wins her freedom. She preys on Don José’s weakness and, like animals, they crawl towards one another on hands and knees before collapsing in an embrace that seals the fate of both characters.
Carmen, having lured Don José into leaving behind the life he knows, then shifts her affections, to tragic ends. Her passion for another man is too much for Don José, who kills Carmen in a jealous rage to complete the story. It was Mr. Stowell’s hope that in seeing the ballet, the audience could connect with the characters on a personal level: “They’re in a situation that could happen to any person….jealousy, destiny, self-destructive behavior, the ways love makes us go out of control . . . those things happen to us all the time.”