Historic Royal Ballet event screens in local movie theaters

Carlos Acosta as Don Jose and Marianela Nuñez as Carmen, in the Royal Ballet's production of "Carmen."


Carlos Acosta as Don Jose and Marianela Nuñez as Carmen, in the Royal Ballet’s production of “Carmen.”

Watching Britain’s Royal Ballet perform in a local movie theater is a marvelous treat, all the more because screenings in the Royal Ballet in Cinema series occur infrequently and may come at odd times. The “live” relay of Carlos Acosta’s farewell to the Covent Garden stage — in his spectacular staging of “Carmen,” no less — occurred on Thanksgiving Day in America, when even devoted balletomanes were busy consuming holiday dinners. Thank heavens this historic performance was recorded. Returning to movie theaters around the U.S.A. this week, the mixed bill also featured ballets by Liam Scarlett, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine.

Acosta’s leave-taking represents a milestone in the life the Royal Ballet, where the Cuban virtuoso has been a fixture for 17 years. Replete with bouquets, ovations and a generous speech in which he paid tribute to the company as a “collective” of artists working on stage and behind the scenes, the evening nevertheless seemed like a temporary farewell. Acosta’s slick and sexy staging of “Carmen” combines theatrical intelligence with a popular touch, suggesting his potential as an in-house choreographer.

At the moment, three British choreographers are associated with the Royal Ballet, with Scarlett occupying the post of artist-in-residence. Even though cinematic close-ups don’t do justice to the spatial architecture of his ballet “Viscera,” one can see why artistic director Kevin O’Hare created a place for him. Though this neo-classical piece does not display a broad vocabulary of steps, it resolutely emphasizes the dancers’ chiseled lines. To escape rigidity, Scarlett adds undulations that pass down torsos and through arms and shoulders.

The women have a tendency to fold across their partners’ backs, a movement fluent Marianela Nuñez and Ryoichi Hirano recall in the central pas de deux. While “Viscera” is plotless, Scarlett’s use of the dancers’ backs seems suggestive. Hirano presses his cheek against Nuñez’ back; and approaching him after a separation, she prods him from behind with her head. When they come face-to-face, however, their duet ends. This aspect of “Viscera” curiously anticipates the dramatic situation in Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun,” where the self-absorbed lovers prefer not to look at each other directly.

Laura Morera is the soloist in “Viscera.” Epitomizing the ballet’s sharp and aggressive response to a piano concerto by American composer Lowell Liebermann, her character seems pained and reluctant to follow the ensemble’s lead when, near the end, its members fold their arms around themselves in a constricting embrace.

Two chestnuts from the New York City Ballet repertoire filled the center of the program, with Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov as the narcissistic couple in “Afternoon of a Faun”; while guest ballerina Iana Selenko captured the wind-blown grace and rhythmic subtleties of Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” partnered by an energetic Steven McRae.

Then it was time to surrender to “Carmen,” in Acosta’s teasing and flamboyant staging. Understanding that sexual freedom is the heart of this story, Acosta has condensed the familiar plot to focus on sizzling encounters between Carmen and her lovers, the renegade soldier Don José and the toreador Escamillo. The surest signs of Acosta’s skill are the seamless efficiency with which scenes change and the speed of the dancing — not to mention the alacrity with which the characters undress. In ensemble sections, randy gypsies rip off their clothing in seconds as if the whole ballet were one lightning-fast, romantic escapade.

Only Acosta, as Don José, objects to this debauchery, modestly attempting to put his uniform back on in the scene where Carmen’s brigand friends coerce him into joining them. Ironically, this sensual dancer casts himself here as a virginal innocent. His weighted, powerful movements project sincerity in the scenes where Carmen ensnares Don José, or he beseeches her to return to him. Yet prudish Don José is not the hero.

Another Acosta lies behind Escamillo’s cocky self-assurance in the naughty solo the toreador dances to impress Carmen. Escamillo deploys an arsenal of suave insinuations, pyrotechnics and suggestive twitches. Carmen is more than intrigued; and both Nuñez, as the title character, and wiry Federico Bonelli, as Escamillo, give extraordinary performances unflagging in their vitality.

Of course, this story has to end badly. Upstage, awaiting his chance, a dirt-smudged Minotaur watches Carmen from the edge of a giant ring of fire, eventually descending to pursue her with horns lowered goring her multiple times. Not until she feels the blade of Don José’s knife, however, does Nuñez’s wanton gypsy understand that her pleasures are at an end.

Acosta’s “Carmen” employs a large cast, including singers, and features some notable theatrical devices like the Minotaur (Matthew Golding) and the cage in which Carmen turns the tables on Don José, making him her prisoner. Martin Yates has orchestrated Georges Bizet’s opera score to accommodate percussionists and guitarists in a faux flamenco tablao. Yet this “Carmen” succeeds for a simple reason that has little to do with elaborate stage business. By unleashing his characters’ libidos, Acosta’s production becomes a celebration of life.

Aficionados can catch the Royal Ballet again on Feb. 14, in a screening of an Ashton double bill consisting of “Rhapsody” and “The Two Pigeons.” Visit roh.org.uk/cinemas to see where this is screening in New Jersey.

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