Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen
Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen
Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen
Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen
Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen
Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen
Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen
Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen
Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen
Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen
Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen
Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen

A story filled with wild passion and high drama. This is Carmen, Cape Town choreographer Veronica Paeper’s full-length ballet, based on the novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée, written and first published in 1845. 

This work has been adapted into a number of dramatic editions, including the famous opera by Georges Bizet. 

Paeper’s Carmen, choreographed in 1987 for Capab Ballet, will be staged for Joburg Ballet and opens on April 6 for a 10-performance season at the Joburg Theatre. 

Gauteng dance lovers can look forward to a riveting production with captivating storytelling and a striking admixture of classical ballet, Spanish dance and freshly invented dramatic dance action. 

Set in the south of Spain, the ballet tells the story of the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier who is seduced by the wiles of the fiery gypsy Carmen. José abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his military duties, yet loses Carmen’s love to the glamorous matador Escamillo, after which José kills her in a jealous rage. 

Carmen is a gypsy and a free spirit, possessed of a wild and rebellious nature, combined with a charismatic appeal for the opposite sex. José is a soldier, disciplined, with strong principles. Two people, poles apart, become lovers but in their lives fate tragically intervenes.

In addition to Paeper’s performing career, in which she rose to become a principal dancer with three South African companies; Capab Ballet, Pact Ballet and Pacofs Ballet, she began choreographing in 1972. 

Her first work, created for Capab Ballet, was John the Baptist, a dramatic one-act ballet set to music by Ernest Bloch. Scenery and costumes were designed by Peter Cazalet, an innovative, witty artist who would remain Paeper’s most frequent artistic collaborator for the next 25 years. 

A prolific choreographer, Paeper has created more than 40 ballets, among them 16 full-length works.

“For a full-length ballet like Carmen, with its powerful and dramatic storyline, I found it necessary to live with the characters for almost three 
years before starting to teach the work, and thus I came to know Carmen and Don José very well,” Paeper says.

During this gestation period she tried to analyse the protagonists and probe beneath the surface so that, eventually, she knew not only what they were doing but, more so, why. Only then could she create steps to match the personalities of each character without disturbing the essential lyricism of classical ballet. 

Much use was made of the Spanish style and technique, but these have been adapted to fit in with the classical ballet idiom.

Paeper says that Bizet and his collaborators, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, who conceived the scenario of the opera, succeeded in her view in capturing the essence of the original Prosper Mérimee story and turning it into an excellent theatrical concept which she has attempted to convey through dance.

Designer Peter Cazalet says that “Carmen as a ballet is a project with which we are trying to break the mould of how we expect ballet to look and feel. Every now and then a ballet comes along that one believes will be a milestone – a vehicle for new ideas and expressions, a chance to break new ground”.

The original Bizet operatic score was rearranged by Michael Tuffin for Paeper’s balletic version of Carmen. Tuffin says that he approached this commission with great trepidation. 

“The thought of translating one of the world’s most loved operatic scores from one medium to another was, frankly, intimidating.”

Tuffin says that the demands of music for ballet are quite different from those for opera, and much of the music in the dramatic dialogues in Carmen is not suitable for dance. He therefore searched elsewhere in Bizet’s oeuvre for some lesser known pieces to slip into his Carmen. 

“I did not wish to introduce traditional Spanish folk or Flamenco music as I believe it is vitally important to stay as true as possible to the original spirit of the musical style,” he explains.

Taking its place in the orchestra pit, the relaunched Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) will bring to life to Bizet’s famous music, under the baton of conductor Brandon Phillips.

 Pictures: Lauge Sorensen