Screams! Cheers! Applause! At the end of the opening night performance of Ramón Oller’s Carmen, the Joyce audience is on its feet. The choreographer has delivered an unforseen climax, beside which the strangling of the eponymous heroine by her lover seems almost post-coital. While the enraged José (Javier García) flings the fickle Carmen (Sandrine Rouet) around, a Gypsy (Mari Carmen García) who stands for Fate turns the spigot of a nearby water tank (we’re on a rooftop). Only a small stream of water spills out at first, then an immense gush about six inches in circumference. Carmen slips and falls repeatedly, getting wetter and wetter. José pulls her out so he can push her in again, yank her out, and choke her. Meanwhile, the Gypsy has decided to lie down in the water. Whatever it symbolizes.
Of course, the audience isn’t just reacting to this orgasmic finale. They’re applauding the splendid, tireless performers of Compañía Metros. And maybe they like the dancing too, of which there is plenty. So much so that you wonder how the workers in this tobacco factory, on whose roof the story unrolls, have time to roll the cigarettes and cigars that they occasionally smoke energetically.
Oller has created over 40 works since 1984, including Bury Me Standing for New York’s Ballet Hispanico, and he has a dramatic sense of movement, but in this case, his sense of theatrical structure goes awry. In choosing to present Carmen as an intermissionless work about 70 minutes long, he has had to omit much of the plot of Prosper Mérimée’s 1852 tale and Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera. His José is no soldier torn between duty and his unwise passion for Carmen. Because he hasn’t suffered for her sake (a two-month stint in jail and damaged reputation), his anger seems to proceed from a shallow jealousy, rather than from a broken heart.
He doesn’t, like the hero of the opera, appear to be a relative newcomer to the scene, paying a convenient visit to Micaela (Sau-Ching Wong), a factory worker he’s fond of. While a man identified as Listillo (Arnau Castro) teases Carmen with a red shawl and spins and leaps up a storm, and four macho men dance with four spunky women, we assume that the guy embracing and chatting quietly with Micaela is just another employee. He’d have had ample opportunity to make out with Carmen if he’d wanted to.
Courtesy of Compañía Metros
She isn’t easy to love. A brief introduction shows her as vulnerable: Dressed almost like a little girl, she makes her way cautiously along another slow slanting roof as if walking life’s tightrope. Otherwise, there’s no plot to give her schemes and dreams. Her sole goal appears to be sex and plenty of it, mediated by a lot of teasing and rebuffing. In fact, sex appears to be the chief pastime of this crowd. Oller presents the men and women of the ensemble almost exclusively as couples, or in gender-specific quartets. When partners are not dancing in athletically lascivious ways (picture this: Each man picks up one of his partner’s legs and walks backward, making her hop forward after him until he releases her into a leap), they’re smashed up against each other, rubbing and writhing. Women fall and spread their legs; so do men.
The choreography conveys no sense of a community, even of a contentious one. When Carmen goes too far, the women yell at her, and their men haul them back. After Bruto (Daniel Corrales) almost rapes her and she slaps him, Manuela (Sonia Martín) goads her into a duel with fans. This is one of the work’s high points; the swish of the fans opening and shutting creates an effective counterpoint to a score in which Bizet’s melodies are woven into Martirio’s music (we hear snatches of the seductive “Habañera” many times, played on various instruments and sung by various voices). Another strong section is the sequence for the Torero (Christian Lozano) and three men pawing like bulls in red sand scattered by the Gypsy. And this woman, who’s been making ominous heelbeats on the sidelines and intervening in the action at certain moments to convey approaching doom, really dances a brief but refreshing flamenco-style duet with him.
He has evidently just come from the bullring, because his red velvet jacket is open. It’s easy for Carmen to get him up on the smaller roof, divest him of it, and start grinding against him. This encounter is very different from the earlier, gentler erotic one between Carmen and José on the same roof, after Micaela has thrown water on her, and she’s curled up weeping.
There are curious inconsistencies we’re meant to overlook. These people appear to keep several changes of clothes at work (Carmen dies in a ravishing flowered dress by Mercè Paloma). Why does Carmen slide down into the factory via a window opening on the roof while everyone else uses a door? Why does the Torero show up here to celebrate his victory? And why, after José’s rage has separated Carmen from him, does this famous bullfighter retire to the back of the stage, surreptitiously remove his boots, and join the watching, dancing crowd as if he’d been stricken with amnesia?
The performers are outstanding, especially Rouet. Joan Jorba’s very effective grubby set enhances the choreography, providing levels and odd areas for hanging out. Oller’s eclectic mix of coarsened ballet, modern dance, and mildly athletic effects is often arresting; there’s just too much movement that doesn’t reveal character, advance the plot, or offer a contrast to the unrelentingly obsessive pseudo sex. It’s enough to make you yearn for a corny cigar-rolling number.