At the Warner Theatre last night, one sensed the thunderous reception to come -- the applause, the shouts, the standing crowd, releasing feelings pent up and mounting without break for 90 minutes. It erupted at the final curtain like lava, as did the performance, which was a slowly simmering caldron of emotional vehemence, now and then boiling over as the flames licked higher, receding to an ominous murmur, only to be whipped up still more violently to an ultimate outburst.
It was the American premiere of "Carmen" by the Ballet Antonio Gades, the stage version of a movie collaboration between dancer-choreographer Gades and Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura. The movie was seen here last year and no doubt generated on its own a sizable potential audience for the week-long run at the Warner.
This is, however, no mere stage transcription of the film. Nor is it -- though the Ballet Antonio Gades is a superb troupe of dancers and musicians -- a concert of Spanish dance centered on the "Carmen" mystique. Rather, it belongs to a genre of its own, which is one cause of its stunning power as a theatrical experience.
This "Carmen" is like a Spanish Gesamtkunstwerk, minus Wagnerian overtones; it's a genuine fusion of artistic media, masterfully integrated and bent toward the expression of a single dramatic idea. The inspiration is ascribed by its producers -- Gades and Saura -- to Prosper Me'rime'e's novel, the opera by Bizet and the popular music of Spain. But the resultant conception could have been sired only by this fortunate match between a dance master and a film director. Dancing, solo and choric singing, guitars, percussion from feet, fingers, hands and castenets, brilliantly dramatic lighting, a spare, modular set and a cinematic fluidity of form enter equally into the gripping effect of the whole.
If there are limitations to the work, perhaps they are due to the inherent one-dimensionality of the "Carmen" material itself. From someone who has never fully understood the appeal of "Carmen" -- Bizet's opera or the story it tells -- my opinion may not be the most reliable. But it seems to me that the starker, grittier, subtler "Blood Wedding," both in its stage realization and as the first of the Gades-Saura film collaborations, was artistically superior. Pushkin's Tatiana in "Eugene Onegin," moreover, strikes me as a more interesting incarnation of a liberated female spirit than the garish, purely instinctual Carmen, and as a personification of obsessive jealousy, Othello makes Don Jose look like a callow delinquent.
Be this as it may, the Gades-Saura "Carmen," even more so on stage than in the film, is a triumph of collaborative craftsmanship. Like the film, the stage version begins with a dance class, in which the dancers launch into a rehearsal of the "Carmen" ballet. Unlike the film, there's no intertwining story of the dancers' private lives, and no dialogue -- once the "Carmen" tale is set in motion, it's up to the flamenco dancing and the music (alternating flamenco and Bizet) to carry it forward.
This is a "Carmen" distilled to basics -- a brief exposition of the main characters; Carmen's seduction of Jose; a mock bullfight; the cane duel in which Jose slays Carmen's convict husband; Carmen's flirtation with the bullfighter; and her stabbing by the now desperate Jose. A collection of chairs, tables and movable mirrors serves as an aptly blunt setting. In the seamless tapestry of the staging, tension is sustained as much by silences as by sound, by stillness as much as movement.
The performance is so much an ensemble effort that, although Gades and the other principals have an inevitable prominence, the drama is experienced as inseparable from the ethnic, social and atmospheric milieu in which it is embedded. The performance also demonstrates the expendability of virtuosity for its own sake -- there's plenty of virtuoso dancing, but every moment of it serves a specific dramatic function. The ensemble itself participates almost like a series of independent "characters" in the drama -- the use of such massed effects is one of the distinctive features of Gades' treatment of the flamenco idiom, most often an art of solos and duets.
What can one say of Gades as a dancer, apart from his being one of the consummate performers of the age in any medium. At 48, he remains one of the flamenco greats. If what he does is incomparable, it may be partly due to his unique combination of classical and Spanish dance background, and partly to an awesome personal intensity -- he has only to strike a pose to send electrical bolts through your spine. Christina Hoyos -- the ballet mistress in the film -- makes a powerfully mature Carmen, not a girlish slattern, but a woman who's lived brutally and fiercely. The same level of compliments must go to Juan Antonio Jimenez as the husband, Juan Alba as the torero, and the entire company of dancers, singers and guitarists.