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Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté star as Carmen and Don José in the current National Ballet of Canada production of Carmen at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.

Bruce Zinger

National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
Runs Until
Sunday, June 16, 2013

You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Italian choreographer Davide Bombana's short version of Carmen (2006) was underwhelming when it entered the National Ballet of Canada's repertoire in 2009. His full-length Carmen (2009), which has just had its National debut, is absolutely bloodless.

The problem, in a word, is sex, or the lack thereof. Whether in Prosper Mérimée's original novella or Bizet's famous opera, raw emotions drive the story. In comparison, Bombana's choreography lacks bite.

Bombana earned his international reputation by creating attractive packages. While not terribly original, he can manipulate ballet vocabulary to tell a story. In Carmen, his strengths lie in solos and ensembles. Curiously, he is weakest in his pas de deux, which is fatal in a story like Carmen.

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The expanded version gives Bombana a chance to further develop character and relationships, and the choreographer has gone back to Mérimée's original story for his inspiration. Audiences used to the familiar libretto of Bizet's opera will find it a change.

It is clear that Don José is bored with his village sweetheart Michaela. Later solos telegraph Don José's obsession with Carmen, and his utter despair over his killing of Carmen's bandit lover Garcia. Michaela's jilted-lover solo is heartbreaking in its desperation, while Garcia is all virtuoso swagger and bravado. The bandits get punchy, testosterone-driven movement, while the cigarette girls are rough and street smart.

While Bombana's choreography for Carmen has all the moves to suggest seduction, with its spread-leg stances and thrust pelvises, somehow it doesn't work. Similarly, none of her duets, whether with Garcia or Don José, convey carnality. The partnering is just too polite. Even the fight scenes are tame.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in the dramatization is that everything happens too fast. There is no, pardon the expression, foreplay. Don José and Carmen couple too soon. Don José's jealousy flares too quickly. Same with the toreador Escamillo (in the guise of a bull, horns and all) – his ravishing of Carmen is too brief.

On another disappointing note, the four toreadors who accompany Escamillo, dressed in flamenco drag with large oversized fans, represent a cheap way to get a laugh. Meanwhile, the Old Carmen character is a odd inclusion, since Carmen dies young.

Half of the National cast is a repeat from the 2009 opening night, with Heather Ogden as Carmen, Robert Stephen as Garcia, and Lise-Marie Jourdain as Carmen's cigarette girl enemy. The other roles are performed by Guillaume Côté (Don José), Xiao Nan Yu (Michaela), Jiri Jelinek (Escamillo) and Rebekah Rimsay (Old Carmen). Alas, this very talented group of dancing actors are lost in Bombana's cool approach.

It's clear why Ogden is beloved by choreographers. Her perfect ballet body absorbs movement like a dream. Unfortunately, the ballet is called Carmen, and without a strong Carmen, there is no ballet. In the short version, Ogden was able to carry off Carmen's indifference and disdain, which seems to be Bombana's vision of the gypsy). In the long version, Ogden is a cipher, a paint-by-numbers character lacking earthiness. She doesn't smoulder. There is nothing raw.

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The deliberate distance between Carmen and her fellows just doesn't work. As a result, the rest of the cast, a good as they are, are left to flounder.

Bombana's choice of music, however, is interesting. He has augmented Bizet's score with modern dissonant composers – Walter Fähndrich, Alexander Knaifel, Meredith Monk, Rodion Shchedrin and José Serebrier. Layered into the mix is the pulsing percussion of Les Tambours du Bronx.

If only the choreography could have matched the driving force of the music.

Carmen continues at the Four Seasons Centre until June 9, then returns on June 15 and 16.

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