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Saturday, 15 May 2021

Spanish troupe presents Carmen as melange of techniques, emotions

Performing 'Carmen' in Cairo and Alexandria, the Spanish troupe Ballet Flamenco de Madrid transported the audiences through the traditions of Spain, fusing extracts of Bizet’s music with the traditional flamenco

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 21 Feb 2015
Ballet Flamenco de Madrid
Ballet Flamenco de Madrid (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

Flamenco, the famed Spanish dance that has captivated the hearts of viewers of every cultural background and every artistic hue, was once again Cairo’s welcome guest. 

Coupled by its colourful framing, the ardour and emotional intensity of flamenco make it irresistible. It has inspired poets and painters, filmmakers and viewers read messages of life and love in its music. Flamenco has thus also turned into a global commodity, trapped in competitiveness and marketing but also inviting further exploration of the creative riches of Andalusia.

Egyptian culture is particularly receptive to this Spanish-born art, a large part of which is historically intertwined with Islamic culture. Coming from the heritage of the Andalusian gypsies, flamenco music and dance extravaganza is no stranger to the Egyptian concert halls; the dance is cultivated in the many local social dance teaching centres and among the dance aficionados. In Egypt flamenco is a guaranteed crowd puller, especially when it is being performed by Andalusians from the dance’s one and only incontestable cradle.

And viewers did flock to the Cairo and Alexandria opera houses in droves last week (on 10-12 and 14-15 February, respectively). Despite the high ticket price, the Spanish troupe Ballet de Flamenco de Madrid performing Carmen attracted an audience of very considerable size, spanning generations and backgrounds.

Based on a novella with the same name by the 19th-century French writer Prosper Mérimée, as an opera Carmen is best known for music by Georges Bizet. Though Bizet’s opera is among the most popular forms of this tragic story, revolving around the seduction by the title heroin of an until-then incorruptible soldier, the theme has been adopted in the many dramatic works. Interestingly neither Mérimée nor Bizet expected Carmen to become an internationally appealing work that could draw audiences with the same power one and a half centuries later. 

Ballet Flamenco de Madrid
Ballet Flamenco de Madrid (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

Mérimée’s score of works were generated by his passion for research and history, and Carmen was a result of a visit to Spain during which he indulged his fascination with Gypsies, a community that was at the centre of literary and artistic attention during the 19th century and the start of the 20th. Passing away a few months after completing Carmen, Bizet did not live to see the success of what was to become his best-known work.

The Spanish Ballet Flamenco de Madrid fuses extracts of Bizet’s music with the traditional Spanish flamenco. In the consecutive scenes, the viewer passes through Seville’s squares and taverns, tours the tobacco factory populated by gypsies, watches the girls’ flirtation with the soldiers and follows the development of Carmen’s relationship with Don Jose. 

From the touching duets to the group scenes, all the famed thematic elements of Carmen were included and brought to life in nearly two hours of performance. Shifts from Bizet to flamenco and back gave the choreographer Sara Lezana an opportunity to accent classical flamenco with echoes of ballet. There was definitely a melange of techniques and emotions, with a range of ballet and ballet-like techniques complementing the impressive postures and captivating footwork of flamenco, performed to exacting standards of precision. 

Likewise the music: Bizet’s Carmen recording in some scenes was swiftly replaced by live music — guitar, percussions, flute and vocals — performed by musicians seated at an elevated space erected upstage.

On its website, the company states that all its performances “were born from the need to break the cliché that states the Spanish dance is just flamenco dancing. A new proposal, in which the whole is the pure protagonist of a story woven through the feelings dance can offer. The rhythm, magic, sensitivity, movement, aesthetics, harmony and charm are fully identified with these artistic realities. A professional challenge so that everyone understands our music and dance adapted to contemporary tastes of viewers in any country.”

Ballet Flamenco de Madrid
Ballet Flamenco de Madrid (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

But as we follow this creative vision, moving from one scene to the next and enjoying each separately, the variety that the director seeks to befriend becomes his foe. 

The chunks juxtaposed create separate segments with each living its own life and jeopardising the broader aesthetic and the fluidity of the whole, though the journey remains rewarding with the scenes that project captivating flamenco artistry always wonderfully underscored by the show’s protagonists: the immaculate Noelia Casas as Carmen; the deep, energetic Victoria Duende as Manuela; and the emotionally piercing Francisco Guerrero as Don Jose.

The performance relies on minimal scenography and few props, a procedure that makes it portable as it were. It is probably this ability to travel easily and present itself appealingly with a minimum of resistance that allows Ballet Flamenco de Madrid to tour the world. 

What the troupe can still consider refining at the various venues, however, is lighting and sound techniques. In a few scenes the light was catching up with the dancers too late, missing a portion of their performance. The transparent fabric that is often used in theatre to create a division between scenes taking place in two different thematic realities needed much better lighting so that the action behind it could be less ghostly, especially when the choreography involved fine details of movement. Equally the poor quality of the recorded music, often played at exaggeratedly high volume, took away from the joy of the performance.

Since 2005, when it first came to Egypt, the troupe has performed in many countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America. This was its second appearance in Egypt.

Ballet Flamenco de Madrid
Ballet Flamenco de Madrid (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

This aticle was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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