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Flash Review 1, 2-5: Less Dress, More Ole!
Backstage Backstabbing With PNB & Stowell's New "Carmen"

By Terry Hollis
Copyright 2002 Terry Hollis

SEATTLE -- Kent Stowell's new production of "Carmen" for Pacific Northwest Ballet, premiered Thursday at the Mercer Arts Arena, gives a big lesson in doing more with less.


Ariana Lallone and Jeffrey Stanton in Kent Stowell's Carmen.
Photo by Angela Sterling.

Gone from this "Carmen" are the flashy costumes and space-eating sets typically associated with an evening-length ballet; instead we get a high-tech environment with cold steel movable frames (by Randall G. Chiarelli) and 10-foot high video screens at the back of the stage that project both prerecorded rehearsal footage and the live action onstage (shot by an onstage camera person in slick artsy black clothing). The whole thing is a look at backstage life via a rehearsal for a performance of "Carmen," so we get to see dancers sweating in their rehearsal wear. Even the costumes for the actual performance are about as flashy as a Gap ad, but what the ballet holds back in appearance it makes up for with wall-to-wall dancing. The choreography itself, to a score that draws from Geroges Bizet and Rodion Schedrin, is the kind of streamlined, quicksilver stuff you find in more abstract ballets; but flavored with the character-driven flick of the wrist, the romantic swoop, or the battu-heavy "men's section." The performances themselves were pretty much a revelation. Ariana Lallone as Carmen was all arms and legs. Deceptively fragile looking, Lallone was more vicious mind games than physical prowess. Stanko Milov as Escamillo projected a shameless amount of charisma in addition to sticking all of his landings. Patricia Barker as Micaela, the find of the evening, delivered so much nuance and musicality you barely noticed her technique was like iron.

With the house lights still up, a dancer strolls on stage with her dance bag and begins warming up for rehearsal. One by one the other dancers follow and as the house lights go down the stage springs to life with all the chattering, stretching, and playfulness of the studio. Soon the rehearsal director shows up (real ballet master Otto Neubert) and as he gestures to the orchestra, the dancers rip into a rousing group section chock full of twisting character steps on point, and soaring tours in attitude for the men. With rehearsal over and a few of the dancers hanging out and going over steps, the steel frames are rolled on stage to form divisions in the space. In one corner we can see Anna Dabrowski giving class, in another, two dancers are rehearsing "Theme and Variations," and down stage Patricia Barker and Jefferey Stanton are going over the pas de deux that we see two more times that night.

Through all of the competing action, Lallone and Milov catch each other's eyes and the game begins. Stowell sets up a dual love triangle, both backstage and in the ballet itself; while the action in the actual ballet is clearer, the intrigue backstage is reduced to whispering, furtive looks, and the occasional "You're holding me too tight!" look from the ballerina. Jeffrey Stanton as Jose is the quintessential boy-next-door. With his "golly gee" approach to the whole thing he is no match for the vortex of Ariana Lallone's arms and legs. Whereas he politely draws his foot up to passe for a neat series of turns, she bypasses all formality and gobbles up every pirouette and jette. It's no wonder, after her Carmen finds herself in prison, she seduces him into releasing her only to leave him there in her place. As if this wasn't enough she teases him and writhes on the floor in front of the cell, as his sits watching and wondering what happened.

Escamillo presents more of a problem, because like Carmen, for him it's all about him. During his Toreador's solo Milov, who must stand a good foot over almost everyone on stage, sucks every ounce of attention towards him, putting not one, but two endings at the finish of his variation! Both on-stage and backstage Carmen and Escamillo share a stormy relationship. Rehearsing their steps, he never seems to hold her in the right place. In performance there's definite fire but they keep each other at a distance. Stowell lets us see three "performances" of the fully costumed ballet but we never get to see any reflections of backstage drama. It's disappointing, because he goes to a lot of trouble to evoke backstage life but nothing develops. Aside from video projections of dancers whispering to each other and a little altercation at a make-up table we really don't know who's for or against who.

What it lacks in drama, the production makes up for in dancing, and it doesn't hide the fact we are their to see muscles rippling in practice clothes. Stowell's choreography can be high octane and showy, and at times the ballet resembles more "Chorus Line" than "Carmen".

Barker, a principle with PNB since 1986, was the calm at the center of the storm. As Micaela she was innocence personified, the only little bit of light in all of the backstabbing. Even the bright blue of her costume is the only primary color cutting through a see of earth tones. Micaela's dancing didn't seem to take in the aggression happening around her; she was angelic and almost oblivious to the fact that her Jose is being destroyed by Carmen. Ms. Barker's fluidity embraces each musical phrase, cuddles up to it, caresses it, and then lets it go. Okay, I know it's mushy but she had us in the palm of her hand. The ballet ends with yet another flashy,showy group section, and of course the death of Carmen at the hands of Jose. We don't end up with much insight into backstage life, but we do get to gorge on great dancing.

"Carmen" continues at the Mercer Arts Arena through Sunday, wiith the opening night cast returning Friday and Saturday nights. For more information, please visit the PNB web site.

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