What a treat to see two of Roland Petitâ€™s balletsâ€”Lâ€™Arlésienne and Carmenâ€”performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, faithfully executing two of the late Parisian maestroâ€™s works, staged by the Roland Petit Trustâ€™s Luigi Bonino.
They are particularly close to RNZB artistic director Francesco Ventrigliaâ€™s heart, having worked with Petit himself and having danced the role of the Toreador in Carmen in Milano and New York after the maestro cast him. â€˜Maestro Petit was the first to trust me as an artist, and it was a turning point,â€™ writes Ventriglia in the notes to the seasonâ€™s performances.
Both are passionate ballets, but perhaps more so tonight as the RNZB returned home to Wellington to perform them for the first time, dedicated to their late senior costumier, Andrew Pfeiffer, who passed away March 3 after three decadesâ€™ service to the company.
Ventriglia, accompanied by RNZB executive director Frances Turner, made the announcement on stage before the curtain went up.
When it did, we were taken into Provence with the first ballet, Lâ€™Arlésienne. Itâ€™s the briefer of the two ballets (and receives a lower billing in RNZB publicity: itâ€™s Carmen with Lâ€™Arlésienne) but particularly intense, exploring themes of dreams, isolation and solitude. The ballet draws from Provençal folk music and costumesâ€”costumier Christine Laurent gives black shawls to the women and vests with a red sash to the menâ€”and the pas de deux between Frédéri (Shaun James Kelly) and Vivette (Madeleine Graham) is tinged with intensity and tragedy. Frédériâ€™s descent into madness through his obsession with the unseen Girl from Arles is well portrayed by Kelly, especially his solo at the end as he tries hard to break through his mental turmoilâ€”for a finalé itâ€™s particularly powerful and Kelly builds to it and carries it. Grahamâ€™s Vivette tries in vain to save him with emotions showing in her light and flowing dance and her expressions. Itâ€™s a tragic end for a man who refused to conform and who allows his obsession to dominate him.
The ballet is characterized by the small steps from folk dance, contrasting Frédériâ€™s wilder, grander contemporary moves as he tries to break from the rigidness of Provençal society; while simple sets by Réné Allio keep the focus on the leads, from a canvas cloth with an abstract landscape to the final window.
That simplicity is in contrast to the rich and somewhat sinister reds in the first two scenes in Carmen: the tobacco factory exterior that opens the second ballet sees a giant wooden frame and hanging laundry as the full cast performs; the tavern scene has a touch of surrealism with the barren frames of the wooden chairs adding to the spectacle. Thereâ€™s fake cigarette smoke emanating from the stage (the scene calls for dancers to light up). Here itâ€™s the late Antoni Clavéâ€™s costume and set design at work, the women in bodices with zig-zag lines. Among this we first meet Carmen, played to perfection tonight by RNZBâ€™s Ukrainian-born, Wien-trained guest artist Natalya Kusch, a powerful ballerina in total control of her craft. Her Carmen oozed defiance, with her cropped hair and short black dress. Itâ€™s the companyâ€™s ability to attract international talent that adds to its world-class performances, and Kuschâ€™s Carmen was a veritable femme fatale, her en pointe moves emphasizing her prowess.
After Carmen and Don José (Joseph Skelton) spend the night together, their pas de deux was particularly sensualâ€”watch for one explicit move where Skelton arches his back and Kusch lays and rubs on top of himâ€”and hinted at the peril ahead. Skeltonâ€™s tense portrayal as he stabs the victim drew you more deeply into the ballet, while his final confrontation with Carmen is powerful and tragic.
Carmen is the grander of the two, and a spectacular note to finish on. With the relatively short run time, it packs a great deal in, making it more concentrated than the Rio de Janeiro-set version performed by the RNZB in 2010, a full-length ballet by Didy Veldman.
The Two Ballets by Roland Petit, Carmen with Lâ€™Arlésienne, continue till April 1, with four more performances in Wellington (from March 23 to 25) before moving to Auckland (March 29 to April 1). Further details are available at the RNZBâ€™s website.â€”Jack Yan, Publisher