Even if you aren’t familiar with the opera Carmen, chances are you’re familiar with at least some of its score (if you are, chances are equally strong that you’ll have a difficult time getting this melody out of your head today). Though initially a flop when it debuted in 1875, Carmen went on to enjoy critical acclaim and has since become one of the most performed operas of all time. It’s now omnipresent in popular culture.
Fast forward to 2006, when Italian choreographer Davide Bombana decided to transform Carmen‘s sexually charged story into a one-act ballet. The result debuted in Toronto to much acclaim. Now Bombana is back, but this time he’s expanded Carmen into a full-length show, which will be performed by the National Ballet of Canada in June, at the Four Seasons Centre.
The full-length treatment has given Bombana a chance to expand and flesh out Carmen‘s themes, story, and characters. We recently had a chance to speak with him about working on the ballet, some of the difficulties he had, and what it’s like working in Toronto. Our interview is below.
Or, check out the image gallery, which is full of pictures from a recent Carmen rehearsal.
Torontoist: How are things going?
Davide Bombana: Busy at the moment. We’re working a lot because we’ve got three casts to get ready, so it’s getting to the end part of the work process. It’s quite a lot of work, but I’m enjoying it immensely. The company’s great.
Is this your first time in Toronto since your 2006 version of Carmen?
I was here when I did the short version of Carmen, the 50-minute version. Then, in 2009, I did it in Vienna, but they wanted a full-length out of it so I sort of prolonged it. When I got the invitation from [Artistic Director] Karen Kain to come back here to do Carmen again, I proposed to her to have a look at the video of the actual full-length version, which she did like. And then she proposed for me to present the extended version. We started working on the old material, which the company already knew from years ago, and then we had to add another half an hour of extra choreography.
What initially made you want to work on Carmen?
I was always fascinated by the subject. It’s a kind of material that has everything inside it. There is love, there is passion, there is betrayal, there are all sorts of human facets. And everything is very raw, very exposed. And this kind of sexuality that runs through the piece, I thought it would really suit the ballet, because the story is so extrovert, it’s so clear.
What were some of the difficulties in translating the story from opera to ballet?
I think the story’s very readable; it’s quite clear. There is an unhappy couple. José wants to break from this couple and get into this new world. He knows this girl (which could be a drug addict in today’s world) and is obsessed with her and forgets where he comes from and follows her into this underground world. At the end, when he would really like to have her, he realizes that it’s not possible. That it’s not possible to change her.
Both characters are very strong, both characters are very independent, and both characters want the other to adapt to him or to her. It’s this individuality and this strength of two opposite poles that makes love impossible, because neither of the two is willing to compromise because of love.
So the love story is very easy in a way.
Apart from actually narrating the story, I tried here and there to get a bit deeper in the character and reveal new aspects. For example, a kind of vulnerability in Carmen, and her realizing how her situation—and her way of being—is connected to the present.
Carmen is a very sexualized opera and ballet. When you were figuring out how much of that you were going to try to get across, how did you decide?
On the upper torso there is a kind of freedom, which allowed me to tread this really sexual contact—this abandon of the body, this touching of the body, this touching of the head from the neck. And through this extra movement, connected with a neoclassical vocabulary, I tried as much as I could to reveal the sexuality.
One very clear moment is the coupling of the bull with Carmen. There I was very direct: she’s lying on the floor and he’s on top of her. There, I wanted to be extra clear with my message.
How does working in Toronto differ from working in the other cities in the world?
First of all, I was thrilled to come back here. When Karen asked me, it was the biggest compliment. And to work with this beautiful company, what can I say? I’ve got such an amazing cast. And I tried to find, for everyone—because we’re working with three casts, which is a lot of work because they’re different from each other—I tried to get for each one of them a way [to ensure that they] reflected his or her role the best. It was great fun, because the quality’s so high and the dancers are so giving. For me, it’s really a joy to be here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.