Music by Georges Bizet - Rodion ShchedrinChoreography by Alberto Alonso
Production Choreographer: Viktor BarykinProduction Designer: Boris Messerer
World premiere: 20 April 1967, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
Premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre: 19 April 2010
Running time: 45 minutes
Carmen-Suite was first staged in Moscow in 1967 by the Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso for Maya Plisetskaya, at her own request and at his own desire. The music for the ballet is a transcription by Rodion Shchedrin of Georges Bizet’s grand ballet.
At that time there was no talk of foreign choreographers, though a politically-motivated exception was made for the Cuban – following the Cuban Missile Crisis things were different. But those who allowed it could not have imagined what they were getting involved in.
First of all, the ballet was provocatively un-classical; Plisetskaya paced across the stage not en pointes but in plain shoes, neither did she wear a tutu, but rather in a risqué short skirt, and her body did not look remotely balletic. And in general the ballet was intense in utterly impermissible passion, true eroticism and the equally impermissible – and so intoxicating! – idea of freedom that was so clearly expressed in it that it could never be shown in any Soviet theatre.
But it happened – for the same purely political reasons. The final decision was preceded by a battle between two women. “You are a traitor of classical ballet!” exclaimed the Minister of Culture Yekaterina Alexeyevna Furtseva with pathos, “Your Carmen will die!”; “As long as I live Carmen will not die,” replied – with just as much pathos – Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya.
Carmen did not die – she was to be one of Plisetskaya’s major roles, her calling card, and not because Plisetskaya danced this ballet longer than she did Swan Lake or Don Quixote, but because the image of Carmen was the best expression of her individuality and her expressive and dazzling gift; impertinence in character and impertinence in dance, a passionate nature and musical subtlety, a loving challenge and a challenge to the canons of dance. And a sharp silhouette, a vivid profile, and heat and tragedy.
Apropos, the non-Russian Alonso actually staged it even more freely and radically; it is known that Plisetskaya and Fadeyechev asked him to control his ardour and reduce the erotic element so that the ballet was not totally banned. This took the heat out of Alonso, but even in such form the authorities were in a state of apoplexy. Alonso spoke of how in this work he had combined the classics with elements of Spanish and Latin American dances. But more than that, he had included, if not “modern” dance, it was a totally new, unheard-of expressionism in the USSR. It was constructed on two dance postulates: the classics taken to the extreme – iron-like movements, iron-like poses, pointes as if nailed to the floor, battements tendus and bodies taut like a string (that’s where the classics blend with Spanish dances), and here we have an utter rejection of the classics, he rejection of any carcass – the same feet “digging”, the hot response of the body and, ultimately, those turned-out poses that make the fateful woman Carmen seem like a stubborn girl. Alonso also said that he was inspired to produce his Carmen by dramatic theatre – the movements have to “speak”. Since then much has happened in dance and now it seems so clear, but there is something else that is much more important: back then, in the Thaw of the 1960s this ballet was part of a general theatre context – the Taganka Theatre had been on the go in Moscow for three years, and Carmen-Suite with its – for the time – shocking conditionality and asceticism of stage space were at the cutting edge. Apropos, in the acclaimed Taganka production of The Good Man from Sechuan there was a mise-en-scène in which the characters sat on chairs set in a semicircle – a motif comparable with a similar motif used by Boris Messerer in hs set design’s for Carmen-Suite. In Moscow Carmen-Suite was Plisetskaya’s “best” ballet – without Maya it did not exist, and neither did Maya exist without it. But there were other performers of it throughout the world. Also in 1967, Alonso staged it in Havana for the great Alicia Alonso (having taken into account the Moscow censorship “corrections” and restoring the passion cut from the duets) and then produced it internationally, moreover not staging just the same production but variations; each time the chorographer has brought something new to Carmen.
In Moscow the ballet only existed as long as Plisetskaya danced; she has gone and only the legend of Carmen remained. But twenty years passed and the Bolshoi Theatre took a risky yet victorious step – for Maya Plisetskaya’s jubilee year her Carmen was revived, as a tribute and as a homage. The elderly Alonso came, too, and staged another new version for the theatre’s prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova; then came other performers and the ballet now sits firmly in the repertoire. The legend has become a classic. “Now Carmen will never die,” Plisetskaya said.
In 2007 during a tour to the Bolshoi Theatre Ulyana Lopatkina appeared in this ballet. She presented her own interpretation, her own vision of the role. The new Carmen was externally reserved; her passions were all on the inside, rarely coming to the surface. But the theatrical iron of Lopatkina’s Carmen is less of a contrast between classical plastique and free plastique as it is a sharp plastique accentuation of the music – it is from this sharpness and these accents that the image itself was born.
Today Moscow’s Carmen can be seen at the Mariinsky Theatre, at last joining the repertoire’s legacy.
At the heart of the ballet lies the tragic destiny of Carmen the gypsy girl and José the soldier who falls in love with her, though Carmen abandons him in favour of the young Torero. The relationships between the protagonists and Carmen’s death at José’s hands is predestined by Fate. Thus the story of Carmen (in comparison with the literary source and Bizet’s opera) is presented symbolically, which is reinforced by the unity of the setting of the plot (an arena which hosts a bullfight).
Marguerite and Armand
Music by Franz Liszt (Piano Sonata in B Minor)
Orchestrated by Dudley Simpson
Choreography by Frederick Ashton
Production Coach at the Mariinsky Theatre: Grant Coyle
Set Designs and Costumes: Cecil Beaton
Original Lighting Concept: John B. Read
World premiere: 12 March 1963, The Royal Ballet of Great Britain, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre: 8 July 2014
Running time: 30 minutes
The ballet Marguerite and Armand was created at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1963. Eye-witnesses recollect that following the premiere there were twenty-one curtain calls.
Frederick Ashton staged the ballet for Margot Fonteyn. Rudolf Nureyev, who had recently arrived in London, was all but unknown to Ashton at the time, but the charismatic young dancer’s partnership with the forty-three-year-old grande dame of British ballet – the incomparable Margot Fonteyn – provided a suitable theme for the production in which the choreographer was afforded the opportunity once again to present his darling in all her glory.
Ashton and Fonteyn emerged as great artists together – she as a ballerina and he as a choreographer. He created ballets with her in mind and dedicated them to her. And if Ashton had not had such a responsive performer who so inspired him over the course of more than a quarter of a century with her ease, emotionality and perfectionism his achievements in British choreography may well have been rather different. In the early 1960s Margot Fonteyn was planning to retire from performing and Ashton’s vision of a stage version of the story told by Alexandre Dumas fils in La Dame aux camélias happened to find resonance with her stage career. In the ballet, the heroine appeared at the end of her life’s journey: dying from consumption, she recalled moments of her former life and her passionate love. It suited Fonteyn to remember the past days of former artistic triumphs. And for Ashton this production was a deeply personal dedication. At the time, in spring 1963, no-one could have imagined that the method chosen to depict the story in the ballet would foretell the scenario of the ballerina’s own subsequent stage life, where events would not be regarded in retrospective but would look into the future. Her greatest triumphs were yet to come and her partnership with Nureyev was to be not a matter of nostalgia but rather the beginning of a new stage life.
Other amazing coincidences are connected with this production: having heard Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor on the radio, Frederick Ashton considered it to be a suitable musical basis for his future ballet based on the plot of La Dame aux camélias. And how surprised he was when he discovered that Franz Liszt and Marie Duplessis, the prototype of Marguerite Gautier, the female protagonist of Dumas fils’ novel and stage play, were linked by a romantic relationship at the end of her short life and that the sonata was composed several years after her death!
Ashton did not create the ballet taking into account the individual characters of the performers, and neither did he tell a story about his dancers; he created their story – it was in this ballet that the legendary duo was born. This was why the choreographer categorically forbade any other dancers to touch this incredibly providential masterpiece. If, at first, during rehearsals Fonteyn and Nureyev had understudies, over time Ashton came to consider that the ballet Marguerite and Armand was not a vehicle where the performers could be replaced. The only possible content of the ballet was the personalities of its protagonists and the magnetism of their relationship on the stage.
But one by one the creators of the ballet all died – first Ashton in 1988, then Margot Fonteyn in 1991 and, two years after that, Nureyev. And the idea arose of reviving this “lost” wonder.
The first dancer with whom the guardians of Ashton’s legacy entrusted Fonteyn’s role was Sylvie Guillem, a ballerina with unique physical abilities and, which is more important here, a rare charisma and incredibly powerful individuality. In 1984 the nineteen-year-old Sylvie had been named an Étoile of the Opéra de Paris by Rudolf Nureyev, while some years later he took her to London for a co-performance and personally introduced her to Margot Fonteyn. Soon she became the brightest star of British ballet, as Fonteyn herself had once been, the unchallenged darling of London audiences. It is quite possible that she, more than anyone else, saw the obvious pointlessness of following the path taken by her mentor Rudolf Nureyev and his eternally adored Margot Fonteyn. Probably that is why Sylvie Guillem turned down the role on two occasions. And when she accepted it in 2000 she looked for the key to the image not in Fonteyn’s Marguerite but in the literary source.
Thus began the new stage life of Marguerite and Armand. The “ghosts” and destinies of Fonteyn and Nureyev have faded into the background, and today’s performers of the ballet – of whom there have been a great many since 2000 – dance the story of Dumas’ characters.
Schedule for Evening of one-act ballets: Carmen Suite. Marguerite and Armand. 2017