Miami City Ballet dancer Jeanette Delgado is not someone you’d tend to overlook, but she’s taking no chances on this steamy August afternoon. She steps challengingly to the front of the company’s studios — then stomps in defiance, planting her hands on out-thrust hips; inviting, no, demanding that we pay attention.
“This is when you go hello Miami!” smiles choreographer Richard Alston.
Carmen is back. On Friday, Delgado will saunter on stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House in Alston’s ballet Carmen, another vision of the perpetual Spanish personality of opera, movies, ballet and our fantasies of sultry women. (Fittingly for this character, it opens on Friday the 13th and continues on Valentine’s Day.)
Alston’s rendition is a gritty one. “I tried to think of her as a real person,” the bear-like, genial 66-year-old Briton said in an interview at MCB’s Miami Beach building. “This is a gypsy girl on the margins of society. She’s quite wild. She’s not a vamp. Carmen has become all about that very low neckline. She’s not that at all — she’s much fiercer.”
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Certainly, Carmen has a fierce hold on our collective cultural imagination. Just like the men she seduces, we can’t seem to get enough of her. Passionate, alluring, manipulative, she’s the archetypal seductress. She’s also the archetypal exotic — a gypsy, a wild outsider, in touch with her body and feelings to a degree far beyond the morality and conventions that constrain normal folk.
Carmen first appeared in 1845 in a novella by French writer Prosper Merimee, who framed it as the story of a real person, with Merimee both recounting and participating in the tale of Carmen and her lover, victim and murderer Don Jose. But she really entered the popular imagination with Bizet’s 1875 opera, which has become one of the most popular and best known in the opera repertoire. Films include the 1954 all-black musical Carmen Jones, with Dorothy Dandridge; and Carlos Saura’s 1983 flamenco version with Antonio Gades, as a flamenco choreographer whose obsession with the young star of his Carmen mirrors the story.
There are several Carmen ballets, with the best known and most influential being Carmen Suite, by Alberto Alonso, brother-in-law of famed Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso. Alberto Alonso created his ballet in 1967 for the great Soviet dancer Maya Plisetskaya, to a score by her husband Rodion Shchedrin, adapted from Bizet’s opera. Alonso’s Carmen is not only a seductress but a free-thinking rebel and victim of a white-masked Fate figure whose destiny plays out in a bullring circled by masked watchers.
Alonso was a big influence on the Carmen that former MCB resident choreographer Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros made for the troupe in 1997, with Iliana Lopez (a Gamonet muse) and her husband, Franklin Gamero, as Don Jose, giving one of their best performances together. The ballet was popular with South Florida audiences, and the company repeated it in early 1999.
MCB artistic director Lourdes Lopez, however, was prompted not by Gamonet’s effort but by her interest in Alston, whose work she had seen and liked. “I wasn’t looking for Carmen, I was looking for Richard,” Lopez says. Alonso had once coached Lopez, who is Cuban-American, in a pas de deux from Carmen Suite, and she loves the Shchedrin score. When Alston sent her a handful of links to his dances, she was immediately drawn to Carmen.
“This Carmen dances a lot — but what I specifically liked about it is he tells a story but it’s neo-classical dancing with traditional costumes,” says Lopez. “The aesthetic is very modern but the costumes are very traditional. … Richard is a very musical choreographer.”
(MCB’s program also includes another company premiere, of Twyla Tharp’s Sweet Fields, a lyrical dance set to Shaker hymns, as well as Balanchine’s classical template Allegro Brillante.)
Alston is one of England’s most acclaimed modern dance choreographers, making Carmen, as a classical ballet and a well-known drama, a departure for him. He took it on as an unexpected commission for the Scottish Ballet half a dozen years ago.
“I said that’s such a ridiculous idea I’ll do it,” Alston says. He has not seen his creation since its 2009 opening night and says he was “thrilled” to work on it again with MCB.
Alston looked to the original Merimee novella, rather than the opera, for inspiration. He was particularly struck by Carmen’s fatalism.
“[Carmen and Don Jose] go somewhere and she says ‘Shall we do it here?’” Alston says. “I know you’re going to kill me, it has to happen, it’s in the cards. So is this a good place?’ She taunts him and she makes it happen.”
Alston has inserted a gypsy fortuneteller, danced by Jennifer Kronenberg, to represent the power of destiny. He also drew on the social conditions and attitudes of Merimee’s time for insight. That gypsies were regarded as amoral and criminal heightens Carmen’s outcast status. Women working in a cigar factory in Seville in southern Spain, like the one where Carmen works (the backdrop for the opening scene), were allowed to abandon their corsets because of the intense heat. “They were considered loose women — the rest of bourgeois Seville basically thought they were prostitutes, and they were simply hard-working girls who did not wear the punishing clothes of 19th century women,” Alston says.
Alston also drew on flamenco dance, particularly the Gades/Saura film — and, in his choreography for Escamillo, the flamboyant toreador who captures Carmen’s attention and inspires her first lover’s murderous jealousy — the formal, elaborate postures of Spanish bullfighters. “Traditional Spanish bullfighting is obsessed with style,” Alston says. “It’s a very elegant, highly schooled language.”
For the three MCB dancers who will portray Carmen; Jeanette Delgado, her older sister and fellow principal Patricia, and the young Brazilian soloist Nathalia Arja, this is an inspiring opportunity to play an iconic character.
“Everything that she does means something and you have to constantly think about that,” Arja says. “Though people see me as this little 22-year-old girl, when I play this part I feel like an older woman. I like that.”
Jeanette Delgado researched Carmen extensively, watching videos of the opera, traveling to Spain last summer to see flamenco dancers and reading the Merimee novella. She was fascinated by the book’s descriptions of the character, and the way Carmen’s seductiveness seems to overflow her story to entrance not only Don Jose, but even Merimee, the narrator.
“He talks about the way she walks and uses her eyes,” Delgado says. “One of the things he says is that she walked over like a wild horse, she had this fire in her eye when she looked at me, like she was possessed.”
Rehearsing on her own, Delgado would sometimes sing the opera’s arias, which she says deepened her interpretation in a new way.
“You always try to sing the music with your body when you’re dancing,” Delgado says. “But with a character like this it helps so much to really get into the music. I completely lose who I am. I’m not Jeanette trying to be sexy. When you really go with the music like that, it feels like there’s nothing else you could do. You have to be that person, you have to be that sensual.
“She’s a woman of the earth and uninhibited by any shame. She’s hurting these men, doing what she wants, feeling passion and the next second she’s not. So you have to go there. You can’t just say I’ll get a little spicy. You have to go full force.”
Delgado also found herself inspired — and perhaps a little seduced — by this powerful, proudly uninhibited character. “She’s gonna be who she is no matter what anyone thinks of her. I love that. We’re always so conscious of our technique and being perfect. She doesn’t care about being perfect. She’s wild and free.”
If you go
What: Miami City Ballet Program III, with ‘Carmen,’ ‘Sweet Fields’ and ‘Allegro Brillante‘
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Ziff Ballet Opera House, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
How much: $20 to $175;
Info: 305-929-7010 or miamicityballet.org
Note: Program repeats Feb. 27 to March 1 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, and March 20 to 22 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.