English National Ballet in Johan Inger’s Carmen

Sadler’s Wells, London
March 27, 2024

It has taken nearly a decade for Johan Inger’s Carmen to get a UK premiere, which is perhaps surprising. It certainly presents dramatic and choreographic challenges which should make it attractive to companies and the title alone should ensure an appeal to audiences.

Some sections work very well. There is definitely a sense that we are observing a community living on the edges of society and, for all Inger’s protestations that it could be any society, it is clearly gitano. Costume designer David Delfín provides an excellent black and silver torero for Don José that manages to be simultaneously understated (as such garments go) and the sort of flashily vulgar that one might find in a tacky nightclub. The tobacco factory is also effective and well danced by the women. The fight is particularly menacing.

While Inger’s scenario works overall, overall it doesn’t bear too close an examination. Given that he states he wanted to focus on the subject of domestic violence, it’s arguable a poor, even odd choice, to centre his story on Don José.

Francesca Velicu as The Boy and Rentaro Nakaaki as Don José
in Johan Inger’s Carmen
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Carmen herself becomes a cliché, as she so often does, all red ruffles, skimpy skirt and seduction, the choreography repeatedly using second position with the obvious inferences. She is less the victim than the protagonist of Don José’s downfall. He comes over merely as angst-ridden, no fault of Rantaro Nakaaki’s interpretation any more than it is of Minju Kang’s Carmen.

Both dance impeccably, but there is too much frenetic movement. One longs for the lyrical, when the score pleads for it to happen, not least in the grand pas de deux. Arms too often flap rather than flow.

The device of adding Don José’s boyhood self as an observer is a grave error and makes for an irritating start. Who hasn’t wanted to react to the annoyance of the sound of a bouncing ball? And, with the addition of the black shades, distracts from the main protagonists. Why not just use choreography to express what the boy and shades do and avoid cluttering the stage?

Minju Kang as Carmen and Rentaro Nakaaki as Don José
in Johan Inger’s Carmen
Photo Laurent Liotardo

It’s a bit of a thankless task for the corps too, although it provides scene shifters for Curt Allen Wilmer’s and Letitia Ganan’s effective gliding set.

Integrating vocalisations, spoken or sung, into dance is often awkward as it breaks the very convention that narrative dance requires, and dancers often feel uncomfortable with it. The use of flamenco jaleos works extremely well though. It feels authentic, and the ironic “Guapa” followed by “La reina” flung at Carmen is positively witty and landed with at least one other member of the audience.

The screams of the shades as they were carried off most decidedly did not though, and were almost inappropriately comical. The only point at which they caught the imagination was as they rolled across the stage like an urban tumbleweed of black bin liners in a concrete canyon. It was peculiarly mesmerising.

It was a treat to hear Shchedrin’s percussive Carmen played live. However, while intercutting it with a modern electronic score may have helped pad out the narrative, it destroyed the Bizet. Both scores would undoubtedly work well on their own terms, but the juxtaposition makes the Bizet feel dated and truncated. The orchestra seemed to have some tuning problems with the tubular bells and some violin solos too.

For all the occasional grumbles, Inger’s Carmen is worth seeing, though. And the production is a far better offering than the triple bill that opened Aaron S. Watkin’s tenure as artistic director. Just don’t analyse it too closely.

English National Ballet perform Johan Inger’s Carmen at Sadler’s Wells, London to April 6, 2024.