By BRUCE DENNILL
Carmen – The Ballet / Joburg Ballet with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra / Choreographed by Veronica Paeper / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein 6
The return of a full orchestra to provide the soundtrack for a Joburg Ballet production is long overdue, and the opening strains of Georges Bizet’s music ahead of the first act of Veronica Paeper’s interpretation of the now nearly 70-year-old ballet create an emotional timbre for anyone in the audience who has been privileged to enjoy the powerful combination of these classical art forms before. It helps, too, that Bizet’s compositions are so powerful and instantly recognisable.
The sets for this production are relatively spare. This is in keeping with the story, almost all of which takes place outdoors, with only visual themes (as opposed to fine details) required to provide context. But it does mean that there is perhaps a greater responsibility on the choreography, and its slick execution, to fill the spaces not occupied by colour or texture – and in this regard, there are occasional shortfalls.
Claudia Monja is a fine fit for the title character – fiery and charismatic and with the athleticism needed to effectively project the brashness of Carmen’s personality. However, it feels as though her role has certain limitations, with the intensity of the choreography required of her somehow rather lower than the passion of the rest of her performance.
Leusson Muniz as Don Jose has rather the opposite scenario to contend with. His character is, in the story, manipulated by the vivacious but irresponsible Carmen. As a soldier, though, Don Jose should have some sort of edge – at least a remnant of the training and discipline that such a vocation requires, Muniz doesn’t quite pull that part of the role off, lacking some of the vitality such a man should exhibit. But he is tall and strong, and able to easily complete many of the longer and more complex lifts that Paeper has placed throughout the piece.
Corps de ballet dancer Savannah Ireland as Jose’s chaste betrothed Micaela has two of the most attractive solos in the production (particularly the first) and executes both with an elegance and precision that speaks well of her continuing progress. There are other highlights, with the castanet-driven ensemble scene in the second act – given extra impact by a backlit white background and some especially eye-catching costumes – one of the best-executed and most stirring moments in the production.
The brazenness of much of the action and of the themes in general (even though the ballet canon is full of cheating and death and violence) still has the capacity to shock a little – good luck to those audience members who brought their young daughters to their first ballet and must now explain the fruitier hand gestures, for instance – and that energy is matched and maintained throughout by the orchestra, who fans can look forward to hearing again with Joburg Ballet production of The Nutcracker in October.