Carmen Suite Review
November 8-9, 2019 | Kennedy Center – Gainesville, FL, USA
American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) Sarah Lane and Cory Stearns captained the corrida of Cuban-born choreographer Alberto Alonso’s legendary and distinctly avant-garde tale, Carmen Suite, during the production’s sold out, two-night run at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, November 8 and 9. This was the first performance of this ballet with a full orchestra in America since 1974.
The percussive score and New World choreography and messages about pure power were, of course, the draws. But what makes this performance most memorable and compelling are the details laid gracefully over the moves and music by the choreographer’s lithe and graceful and forceful wife, Sonia Calero-Alonso. She was the inspiration for the ballet in the first place, and this past weekend, audiences learned why. Her dancers gave her their everything, all clearly in love with and charmed by their Repetiteur.
Violins, then chimes start the performance, following tradition. But tradition ends there. As the lights come up, we see the semi-circle of the bull ring, chairs placed atop the wooden structure, and in the center, a giant red tapestry bares the black face of a bull.
His nostrils are replaced with the Mars symbols of male and female—a striking way to tell us that this isn’t your traditional Eve-ate-the-apple Carmen story. The weight of the staging is visceral and stark. The feria is brief, and we dive quickly into the battle between freedom and oppression as the tapestry is pulled upward to allow for full range of vision.
The experience of Lane’s training and the natural grace of her hands, shoulders, and elegant pointe shoes float her out to her audience, a realization of Calero-Alonso’s homage to her husband’s choreography. Lane’s initial pose, repeated throughout the ballet, reveals her sensuality and her willingness combat anyone who challenges her freedom.
The Cuban style is complicated and demanding. Lane’s footwork prowess partners perfectly with the demands of the score. And her thin, toned arms transition seamlessly between moments where she charges as a bull or collapses into the arms of one of her eager suitors.
Alberto Alonso’s choreography demands his Carmen be a woman of seduction and strength for the audience, as his tale is not just one of love gone wrong. He is commenting on power and those who resist; that resistance is embodied in the pliable and powerful Lane as Carmen. She can perform classical ballet amid inversions and exchanges with her male counterparts that often make her body seem more like a ribbon than sinews and flesh.
The program showcased top dancers—no question. Stearns and Lane were joined by the clever interpretations of former Joffrey Principal and Current Artistic Director of the New York Dance Project (NYDP) Davis Robertson as Zúñiga.
Luis Ribagorda, Corps de Ballet at ABT and husband to Lane, made a fine, fine Torero in his sparkling white-with-black-trim suit of lights and his forceful Spanish gaze. The authentic chemistry between him and his real-time wife, Lane, certainly enhanced their shared gazes, amid and between the veronicas and demanding movements their characters exchanged.
In a theatre with 606 seats and with the Gainesville orchestra playing live (strings in the pit and percussion divided evenly on the wings, where the timpani can get the showcase it deserves for Rodion Shchedrin’s score (after Georges Bizet) that is devoid of brass and infused with new-world percussion instruments), Sonia Calero-Alonso’s tender direction was everywhere—shown in the male characters as much as the female—for example, in the subtleties of Davis Robertson’s performance.
Robertson, a Florida native, confided to this reviewer that Calero-Alonso was putting the finishing touches on his interpretations through the Thursday night dress rehearsal. His controlled and refined ‘pull down’ of his sleek, brocaded uniform shirt and sleeves deeply conveyed the idea that this military superior is no brute.
His power is sophisticated and certain. Robertson stays in this persona throughout the performance. Further, Stearns makes us believe he is following his superior’s motions in the early military scenes when it is made clear that Don José intends to follow the rule of law.
The abandonment of his commitment to service in his quest for Carmen’s love creates the platform for Stearns to break your heart. He is not an evil character, and his facial expressions mirror first his devotion to service, then to Carmen, then to his heartache when she slips from his grasp. Carmen turns her wilds on him to stop him from taking her to jail.
And once he has fallen, we enjoy their moments together, believing somehow—maybe this time—Carmen will feel her compassion for him in time and ignore the matador and remove Zúñiga’s chance to look on from the Inquisition perch to see her betray her Don with Torero. But, alas, Carmen is freedom, and she loves in the moment.
Further, the adroit lines of the masked females clad in orange and black harlequinesque, color-blocked costumes keep the intended oppression of governmental power ever-present. The tension of the very real power pushing against Carmen is further enforced by the stoic soldier troupe, masked and clad in black, obedient in their mirror moves on stage—silent and judgmental when seated in their chairs atop the bull ring.
Near the end of the performance, the audience becomes resigned to the inevitable outcome during the dream sequence dance when Carmen’s lovers and her foil, The Bull (Fate), masked and dressed in a solid black body suit, foresee Carmen’s impending
death, a death that soon follows.
The Bull, a female form, was danced by Brittany Larrimer on Friday and Francesca Kraszewski on Saturday. Both dancers foiled Carmen well, as Lane met The Bull aggressively, shoulders back, gaze fixed, and a face and form resigned to win the day.
Ultimately, of course, Don José is betrayed and enraged. He kills his Carmen in his rage, and in one of the most memorable moments of this staging, she falls in his arms lifeless, clad in black with fringing on her shoulders that adds to her delicate movements of demise.
House left, Torero strikes his final pose, one arm in the air, his suit of light sparkling in mad glory. House right, Zúñiga’s rigorous power pose is stern. And in the middle, under a single light, Carmen lies, lifeless yet free, while her Don performs, standing still, the loss that moved more than one audience member to tears. The tragedy is complete, and the performers hit every final mark with defined precision, as is the Cuban way.
For this reviewer, the main difference in the Cuban Style is that it makes the body into a puzzle solved through movement. The result is often seductive in solo movements and overwhelming in pas de deux pairings, bodies entwined and upended in tenderness, trust, and surrender. Calero-Alonso’s subtle hand tempered the power of the style’s physics (perfected by Ballet Nacional de Cuba co-founder Fernando Alonso) and the force of the geometric movements that made Alberto Alonso an avant-garde legend.
Both nights, the audience was stunned—silent before erupting in to sincere applause. Young students from nearby towns and training programs sat next to long-time ballet fans and experts and academics. The demographics were diverse, and the buzz after
the show was electric.
It feels important to note that Alberto Alonso and Sonia Calero-Alonso lived and worked at Santa Fe College for 18 years as Master Artists in Residency after ex-patriating to America in 1992. They worked alongside Alora Haynes, Chairperson of the Santa Fe College Fine Arts & Entertainment Media Department, including their collaborative film project, Dance of My Heart, a 2009 award-winning documentary on Carmen Suite‘s creation, a film released two years after Alberto’s death.
A portion of this film was shown before the curtain rose to explain the complicated history of the ballet. Haynes and Calero-Alonso have worked together tirelessly to build a Carmen community that has now brought Alberto’s Carmen Suite back to Gainesville—a dream realized for both women. To be witness to such an event had audience members speaking as if they were a part of history.
In the collaborative spirit that is the way of Haynes and Calero-Alonso, their long-time colleague, Robertson, shared his own original composition, Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise), 2019, before Carmen Suite. Set to the music of Joseph Haydn, the work highlights the potential for conflict resolution in a vigorous, fast-paced choreography that illuminated his deep understanding of both classical ballet and his hip-hop roots.
Following in the tradition of Haynes and Calero-Alonso, Robertson clearly listens to his dancers and provides guidance that suits the individual, and that extra layer of instruction and coaching really shows on the stage.
On Friday, before opening night, in the panel discussion, the ever-elegant Sonia Calero-Alonso, now of Miami, shared her understanding of the Suite’s heroine, again a role for which she was the muse. With long-time collaborator and friend Robert de Warren, formerly of La Scala and, more recently, Sarasota Ballet, at her side and working as her translator, Calero-Alonso said of Carmen: “She is totally free and really an enormous power.” She continued: “She seduces because she wants to break power.”
In today’s world, debates of power and freedom of movement erupt all around us. From Facebook to film, power and who holds it seems to be dividing large portions of world cultures. For this reason, the most recent production of Carmen Suite seems salient for this reviewer. Everyone knows some of the music, as the main movements are ubiquitous in Western culture.
And everyone knows something of Carmen, so they are willing to watch her, almost like an old friend. This familiarity gives Calero-Alonso just the chance she needs to present her husband’s inversion of the classic, French Carmen novella written by Prosper Mérimée in 1845 and staged as classical ballet by Roland Petit in 1949. Alberto Alonso’s intent and style have been preserved and pushed forward in this production. Sonia Calero-Alonso inspired the nuances of her husband’s work, and her continued dedication and sacrifices keep her art and her family’s legacy alive. Toro, Sonia Calero-Alonso—toro indeed.
Featured Photo for Carmen Suite Review: Collaboration and Community Create a New Beginning for Alberto Alonso’s Ballet of Sarah Lane and Cory Stearns in Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite © Matt Stamey
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