It is not often one has the opportunity to see a ballet which primarily aims to raise awareness of the present Syrian refugee crisis, however this was the key aim of Irina Kolesnikova’s brave new take on Carmen. It is a story widely performed in both opera and ballet, most recently tackled by Carlos Acosta with varied success and Kolesnikova’s version unfortunately suffers from an identity crisis in trying to portray a sultry, magnetic protagonist against the backdrop of brutality in a war torn district.
As one would expect, Kolesnikova is utterly enticing and commanding, she was born to strut about the stage, whether she’s playing a swan or an exile. There are some interesting staging choices in the first act which sees the ensemble (of the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre) perform most of the backstory to this re-telling of Merimee’s classic tale to Bizet’s timeless score. They are refugees confined and terrorised in an anonymous camp, however these war victims are costumed colourfully. They are neatly presented in leotards with wafty sheets and tidy hair, as Kolesnikova skulks around in a hoodie and baggy tracksuit bottoms making a poor attempt at blending in.
Fortunately, the storytelling is clear in this original re-telling, perhaps a little too clear. We see the refugees firstly harassed by preppy journalists scribbling on pads and flashing cameras, the police are unmistakable in their bright white uniforms and the letter “P” emblazoned large upon their chests. Volunteer workers get the same treatment but with a “V”, you get the idea. It’s all a bit children’s TV. Thankfully, Kolesnikova’s technical prowess soon comes to the rescue before the end of Act One in her seductive rendition of the famous “Habanera” number, shaded with influences of Tango and Flamenco.
Dmitry Akulinin plays the role of Jose, the police officer who falls in love with Carmen just as quickly as she meets her tragic end. The two dance an intense and beautifully choreographed pas de deux, but these attractive moments come out of nowhere and the mixing of the refugee story and that of Carmen leaves little time for character development between the lovers.
There are absolutely enjoyable moments in this experimental production, Olga Kostel’s choreography does enough to keep an audience engaged however the best moments feel cut short in order to accommodate the backstory resulting in a mixed up tale of the traditional at odds with a charitable purpose. Although, as ever, Kolesnikova is undeniably fearless in her ownership of this iconic role.
First published on LondonTheatre1.com