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Ballet Review: Roland Petit's Carmen and L'Arlésienne

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is touring two short ballets by Roland Petit, Carmen with L'Arlesienne.

Roland Petit's Carmen and L'Arlésienne 
Performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch,  February 16.

Roland Petit's ballet, Carmen, emerged from the creative ferment in Europe that followed the Second World War. 

Rejecting balletic tradition, Petit compressed the drama of Bizet's opera into 45 minutes of earthiness, eroticism and violence. 

Created in 1949 as a vehicle for Zizi Jeanmarie, the part of Carmen became one of the great 20th century ballerina roles.  Never before staged in New Zealand, how would the dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet respond to the challenge of this unfamiliar, dramatic and quintessentially French work? 

Natalya Kusch as Carmen and Joseph Skelton as Don Jose in Carmen.

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Thursday night's New Zealand premiere was a triumphant vindication of artistic director Francesco Ventriglia's decision to stage Petit's ballet.  The entire company embraced the theatricality, stylisation, precise footwork and sharp accents of his distinctive choreography.  Expertly coached by Luigi Bonino in a staging that reproduced the original sets and costumes of Antoni Clavé, Carmen felt totally authentic, bringing the feel of post-war Paris to the stage of the Theatre Royal.  Carmen may be a period piece but it is also a classic of 20th century theatre that should not to be missed. 

In the title role, guest artist Natalya Kusch was technically assured, but didn't fully convey the elemental sensuousness and independence of Carmen's character.  Joseph Skelton, as the obsessive Don José, was her able partner and the seductive bedroom pas de deux was a highlight of their performance.  They will surely develop their interpretations as the season progresses.

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Shaun James Kelly as Frederi and Madeleine Graham as Vivette in L'Arlesienne.

Paul Matthews embodied the preening self-satisfaction of the Toreador, while Kirby Selchow was an appropriately abandoned bandit woman, well supported by Massimo Margaria and Filippo Valmorbida as her accomplices. 

The ballet builds to its inevitable, brutal climax, but the tragedy of Carmen and Don José is brilliantly undercut by the indifference of the invisible bullfight crowd whose celebratory hats are flung onto the stage in the final moment.

L'Arlésienne, which opens the programme, is also a ballet about impossible love, that of Frédéri for a woman who exists only in his imagination.  On the eve of his wedding he abandons his bride and leaps to his doom. 

 Dating from 1974, L'Arlésienne shares with Carmen a powerful ritualistic element.  As Frédéri, Shaun James Kelly's haunted eyes and increasingly frenzied dance powerfully convey the theme of obsessive love. Petit's choreography also reveals the pathos and drama hidden in Bizet's familiar score, although credit for this is also due to the RNZB's idiomatic performance.

An enthusiastic audience was surely left wondering why we have waited so long to see these classic works.

Further Christchurch performances will be held at 7.30pm on February 17 and 18, before it shifts to Invercargill, Dunedin, Blenheim, Rotorua, Palmerston North, Wellington and Auckland. For more information, see rnzb.org.nz

 

 

 

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