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Review: Tulsa Ballet's 'Carmen' brings familiar story to dark, disturbing life

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Carmen 259 (copy)

Tulsa Ballet dancers Arman Zazyan and Jaimi Cullen perform in “Carmen.”

Take one of the world's most enduring stories of passionate love and the madness it can engender, strip it down to its most basic elements, and infuse it with all the psychological tension and dread of film noir, and the result would be Tulsa Ballet's "Carmen."

The company presented the world premiere of this ballet by British choreographer Kenneth Tindall Friday at the Tulsa PAC, which takes the story first told by Prosper Mérimeé, and later made famous by Georges Bizet's opera, and streamlines it to create a more contemporary tale that focuses more on the character of Jose, the steadfast soldier whose infatuation with the title character leads inexorably to his destruction.

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What separates Tindall's vision of "Carmen" from most of the others I've seen is his way of treating the story's namesake as something more than just a femme fatale. Sometimes she strides boldly onto the stage, brazen in the way she commands the attention of all around her. Other times, she seems simply to appear in the midst of a crowd, as she has always been present and just now decides to make herself manifest.

It all adds to the sensation of being within a dream-like, or nightmarish, world, never quite sure what is real and what is fantasy. Tindall's choreography uses repeated patterns and shifting vocabularies of movement that are remarkably effective at portraying Jose's ever-shifting emotions, as he struggles to confront the demons that his fascination with Carmen have unleashed within him.

That begins when Jose (performed Friday by principal dancer Arman Zazyan) takes up his sentry position outside a factory, just moments after the employees have been let out on break. Carmen (Jaimi Cullen) is among the workers, and is trying out her wiles on the Lieutenant (James Lachlan Murray) when she spies Jose.

His stiff, no-nonsense demeanor presents a challenge, something that Carmen prefers to the many men who willingly, literally, throw themselves at her feet. She toys with him in an insouciant pas de deux that has Carmen flinging herself at Jose in daring moves, her sly smile proving that she knows he will catch her. She ultimately hands him a rose, and strolls away.

This is followed by a tender duet between Zazyan and Nao Ota as Michaela, his fiancee. The choreography has a deceptive ease and fluidity that makes this couple almost move together as one — until thoughts of Carmen return to Jose's mind.

When Carmen gets arrested after a fight with one of her co-workers, Jose is tasked with taking her into custody. But Carmen is able to play off Jose's growing obsession to escape, which ultimately causes him to lose his job as well as Michaela. And when the now-desperate Jose observes Carmen's flirtations with the star matador Escamillo (Jun Masuda), his jealousy — and all those demons he's struggled to keep under control — take over, dragging him into murderous confrontations with his supposed rival and the woman he believes he loves.

Or is it? Tindall's choreography leaves one to speculate how much of what we've just seen is "real," and how much of it is Jose's fevered imagination running rampant. The ballet's final moments make for a chilling tableau, as the unbowed figure of Carmen slowly strides the stage.

We've seen Zazyan in tragic roles before, but Jose is a true tour-de-force both of powerful athletic dancing and equally powerful acting; he makes Jose's descent into madness palpable and pitiable.

Cullen's Carmen is a wonderfully self-possessed performance, exuding strength and sensuality with a cocky confidence. She makes it clear that, when Carmen is truly on stage (as opposed to being a figment of Jose's imagination), she is in complete control.

Masuda gives Escamillo such an over-the-top air of machismo that he comes across as larger than life in his traje de luces, or the matador's "suit of lights," as he tears through his vigorous opening solo. Ota captures the tender simplicity of Michaela, from the trusting grace she shows in the first duet, to the hurt and resistance that informs her second duet with Zazyan. (Masuda and Ota danced the roles of Jose and Carmen at the Saturday, Nov. 5, performance).

The score Tindall used for the ballet includes most of the opera's familiar melodies, along with Isaac Albéniz's flamenco-inspired "Asturias," "Dance" by Anna Clyde, and original music by British composer Alexandra Harwood, in a soundscape that emphasizes the obsessive quality of the story. Trad A. Burns' lighting design, augmented by Shawn Boyle's projections, augmented the atmosphere perfectly.

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