Her Name Was Carmen – London Coliseum

Choreographer: Olga Kostel
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Drama, passion, jealousy, Bizet’s most famous opera, Carmen has it all. A much revived work, a new ballet version arrives at the London Coliseum this week that splices elements of the original story and music with up-to-the-minute commentary on the plight of refugees, a cause close to the heart of star Irina Kolesnikova whose lead performance in Her Name Was Carmen is part of a season of her work.

It opens in a Syrian refugee camp somewhere in Europe and, without any of the back story, we first meet her hiding out among a colourful cast of refugees. Before long, arch-baddie Garcia has tracked Carmen down and begins to terrorise the occupants in search of her. Meanwhile, Carmen has fallen in love with one of the camp policemen so sparks fly when the three of them come face-to-face.

Her Name Was Carmen is really a not entirely satisfactory mixture of two very different stories. The elements of Bizet’s Carmen are fiery and enjoyable, but most of the dancing is given over to the experience of the refugees and life inside the camp which, while academically interesting, add remarkably little to the central storyline. There are plenty of fence-related metaphors thrown about and many of the movements show the inmates being caged in and controlled by the guards. But at only 40 minutes per act, seeing four or five scenes essentially depicting the same thing becomes rather repetitive.

The refugees here are dressed in fluid, multi-coloured costumes, designed by Vladimir Firer, which are a riot of primary tones that slightly overwhelm the production at times. They all look clean, well-dressed and tidy, which is a far cry from the real plight of displaced people. When the volunteer aid workers appear in their uniform turquoise t-shirts it all begins to look a bit children’s TV. And while the varying colours presumably represent the national and ethnic diversity of the camps, it does rather draw attention to the numerous times the corps is out of sync with one another.

Considerably better are the moments that actually tell Carmen’s tale and her first big reveal leads into a beautiful Kolesnikova solo, which highlights the seductress who ends up charming all men around her, quite literally tying them in knots with their scarves. Equally wonderful in Act Two is the stunning Argentine Tango into Paso Doble danced by a minxy Kolesnikova and with Yuri Kovalev as Carmen’s tormenter Garcia. Despite some slightly dodgy lifts that would make Craig Revel Horwood wince, finally, the stage is alight with the drama and intensity of the story, all too soon diminished by more fence-work.

Dmitry Akulinin also has a beautiful duet with Kolesnikova as the two fall rather rapidly in love, and it is in these moments with her two leading men that the audience can see the ballet this could have been. Despite good intentions to raise awareness about the refugee crisis, had the company focused entirely on retelling the story of Carmen with a bit more of the backstory and more time developing the romance with Jose than on the basis of the scenes presented here, this could have been quite a show.

There are a number of other things to enjoy, especially seeing how subtly choreographer Olga Kostel has woven movements and tones from several latin dances into the story, and there are clear influences from Flamenco, Paso Doble and Tango throughout, while Natalya Naumova’s ‘Video Art’ offers dramatic backgrounds of sunsets or cloud moons to add context.

Her Name Was Carmen is an interesting experiment but has not fully succeeded in integrating its two stories, leaving us with too little of Carmen and, despite Kolesnikova’s fiery performance, not nearly enough of the passion, drama and jealousy.

Runs until 28 August 2016 | Image: Contributed

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