Antonio Gades Company Needs a New Carmen

February 23, 2009

And I don’t mean the production. When the curtain rose at City Center on this Carmen, the stage was flooded with bright color, commotion, sensuality, and artistry. Twenty-five dancers and singers intermingled in the intimacy yet grandeur of a flamenco rehearsal. It had the effect of the opening of A Chorus Line, where you are just showered with the beauty and energy of dancers rehearsing.


Suddenly things coalesce and the dancers advance toward the audience like an army of heel jabbers and wrist curlers, each with her own personal take on the drama of flamenco. This was a tremendously exciting moment in the New York Flamenco Festival.


But Carmen herself is performed by a woman with a thick, unsensual body and an angry face. She’s dead center, wearing bright red, and never leaves center stage for long. She seems to possess no individual movement quality and no ability to change that angry countenance. She has moments of conquest, but not pleasure, and certainly not passion. She is so one-dimensional that when two guys fight over her, it’s not remotely convincing.


Granted, this is a confusing production. It’s based on Carlos Saura’s film Carmen and premiered in 1983. Saura is credited, along with Gades, for the story, choreography, and lights. As Carmen the story-within-a-story proceeds, Carmen the lady in the red dress keeps coming out and you wish she’d go away. I wondered why the director chose to cast this unsexy, unsympatico woman as Carmen when there are so many lithe young dancers in the company—until I read the small print in the program notes. Her name is Stella Arauzo and she is the artistic director—has been since Gades died in 2004. She danced with Gades for years and began performing this role in 1988. I’m willing to believe that she was once a wonderful Carmen, and that she still has great technique, but someone has to clue the company in to her effect now. Sure, the audience applauded profusely, but that’s because of the spirit of the show, despite the frozen spot at its center.


That said, the production had some delights. One was the ingenious staging that shifted between the casualness of rehearsal and the drama of performance. Another was the beautiful the music—seven live musicians alternating with recordings of the Bizet. And a third was Enrique Pantoja, a wonderfully wayward older singer, complete with rotund belly, who crashed the melodrama with his hilarious dancing. He looked like the cowardly lion but showed more pleasure in movement than either of the two lead dancers (Don José was played by a rather stiff Adrián Galia). His dancing was beautifully accented, but without the sharply aggressive accents that Arauzo and Galia displayed. Every time he danced, I felt myself smile.