Monday, May 6, 2013

Carmen A La Choi

"I have written a work that is all clarity and vivacity, full of colour and melody."
- Georges Bizet , on Carmen.

Caught an interpretation of Carmen last Saturday night by the Choi So Bin Ballet Company of South Korea, choreographed by its namesake and Artistic Director Dr. Prof. Choi So Bin. An international friendship gala in cooperation with Lisa Macuja's Ballet Manila held in Star Theater. Accompanying me were my cohort Mara and my young S.O., whose cultural indoctrination I have taken as a mission. 

Carmen is one of my favorite ballets. Originally an opera by Bizet, it's grand, it's passionate, it's dramatic as a Latin lover, and I'm always game to watch and compare its many interpretations. 

Something, however, seems to have been lost in the translation by the Korean troupe.

This is how it's done, chingu.

For starters - and I realise this borders on nitpicking - the titular character Carmen was supposed to be an amoral, scheming gypsy spitfire. Alas, the very Asian and innocent-looking prima ballerina failed to seduce me into believing she could be the scarlet woman, destroyer of men. Casting is often key to the suspension of disbelief. A performing artist may have all the singing and dancing gifts at his or her disposal, but if he or she simply doesn't look the part - despite heroic attempts by hair and makeup - then it just ruins the illusion for me. 

Lea Salonga as Grizzabella. Artist's rendition.

This is why I was unsurprised by the catty swipes at Lea Salonga when she essayed Grizzabella in Cats a few years back. Not only did she not have the gravitas to play a ruined outcast who had been around the block one time too many; her crystal-clear bell of a voice was simply too perfect for such a grizzled, raw, imperfect character.

For the same reasons, I will still watch, but will probably never fully accept, Lea in her dream role as Evita. Now don't get me wrong; I'm no Lea-hater. I give the lady her props. Her voice is like crystal, her accomplishments impressive, and I gained new respect for her standing up for gay rights against Tintin Bersola's brain-deadness.

But like any other performer, there are just simply some roles that aren't right for her. At least, not at this point in time. 

Anyway, back to Korean Carmen. The Choi So Bin company featured only three danseurs, and the rest of the corps de ballet were female. And because all three men - I'm tempted to call them boys, as it seems to be more apt - were dressed in identical tuxedo-like outfits and never had a single costume change, someone unfamiliar with the ballet would've had a hard time identifying who was who. I myself could not tell who was playing Don José, the captain of the guard who abandoned his fianceé for Carmen's seductive wiles, and who was playing the famous toreador Escamillo, for whom Carmen would abandon Don José - with tragic consequences.

All three danseurs were so practically identical in looks and build that Mara couldn't help but whisper "Para silang K-Pop boy band."

They actually reminded me of Sailor Moon's paramour, Tuxedo Mask. Sans the mask, and doing pirouettes :

By the time I realized that Carmen and Don José were performing their lovemaking scene in Carmen's boudoir, we were midway through the ballet already and I had been spending the time before that waiting. Waiting for the signature scenes to happen: Carmen's entrada grande and her habanera; the famous Toreador sequence and Escamillo's grand jetés ; the seduction of Don José and his abandonment of his previous life and respectability.

It then dawned on me that the Koreans were staging a very minimalist, abridged version of what was supposed to be a lush, passionate take on carnal desires, the capriciousness of love, the strictures of morals and the punishment of transgressions. 

Perhaps I was mistaken in assuming that the company would be performing the full ballet. Likewise, the lack of sets and the minimal number of dancers was perhaps a consequence of this being a one-night only guest performance.

Be that as it may, the barebones interpretation pretty much sucked all of the drama out, leaving only a hollow rind where a ripe and heavy forbidden fruit should've been.

Play it again, Carmen.

Ballet, like any other form of entertainment, is escapist. We expect to be transported to different worlds and be captivated, amazed, and filled with wonder and awe at the illusions we pay to behold.

In contrast - and I'm not saying this out of some misguided nationalism - Ballet Manila's more traditional interpretation of the same ballet as part of Lisa Macuja's ongoing Swan Song Series was richer and more rewarding. From the world-class dancing, to the sets, to the magnificent costumes, La Macuja's company embodied the passion, the fire, and the ultimate tragedy of the story.

The Korean Carmen - while aiming for lofty artistic ideals, surely - just struck me as experimental, self-conscious, and of about the same gravity and heft as a high-school play.

Carmen is a bottle of red wine: full-bodied, wanton, and intoxicating. What we got was a chaste sip of apple juice instead.

Next up: Rigoletto Redux

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