Is this ballet for you?

Go if: Red Hot Chili Carmen

Skip if: Faux French or Pastiche Spanish are not your thing

Dream Cast

For Carmen Tamara Rojo because she is Spanish and fiery, plus her surname matches Carmen’s legendary red dress.

Tamara Rojo in Mats Ek's Carmen. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©


Carmen goes back to 1845 when Prosper Mérimée‘s torrid novella used to be passed around privately amongst gentlemen. In 1875 composer Georges Bizet and his librettists adapted the story into opera. At the time his Carmen was blasted by the critics who thought of it as an unabashed spectacle of sexuality disguised in the form of Spanish folklore but gradually Bizet’s work gained more acceptance. Nowadays it is known as the most popular opera ever written.

Long before Bizet, Marius Petipa had also adapted Carmen for the stage. Petipa conceived a ballet entitled Carmen et son Toréro around the time Mérimée’s story was first published (1845). This was before his Imperial Ballet days, when he was working at the King’s Theatre in Madrid and there are no records of what musical score Petipa would have used. But after Bizet’s work, many popular ballet versions of Carmen were created using sections of the operatic score: in London the Alhambra Theatre staged versions by Aimé Bertrand (1897), Lucia Cormani (1903) and Augustin Berger (1912). In Chicago Guns and Castanets a version of Carmen by renowned Metropolitan Opera ballerina Ruth Page appeared in the 30s.

Roland Petit’s Carmen

Roland Petit‘s Carmen for Ballets de Paris (1949) is where Bizet’s score was used in full for the first time in a choreographic work. Based on Mérimée’s story rather than the opera and featuring Renée (Zizi) Jeanmaire as Carmen and Petit as Don José, the ballet was conceived in five scenes and almost entirely stripped of its Gypsy flavour. Petit made Zizi cut her hair short and wear corseted costumes with almost no skirt so as to leave her looking like a French music-hall diva, her long legs exposed to the gaze of José. Spanish quotations also appeared, including a high paced zapateado done en pointe by Zizi. Carmen is first seen fighting with other women in a Tobacco factory. Don José, a soldier, separates the parties and invites Carmen out on a date. They meet at a tavern where Carmen is busy dealing with her many suitors. Impassioned, Don José takes Carmen home and makes love to her. The day after, they plan a robbery but plans go awry after one of the victims is killed and Don José flees. The final scene takes place in the arena. Carmen flirts openly with Escamillo, a bullfighter. Don José, consumed with jealousy, finally stabs Carmen.

Though critics objected to Petit’s departure from Bizet’s libretto, his Carmen was well-received by audiences. It ran for four months in London (where it premiered), followed by five month residencies in Paris and in the US.

Ulyana Lopatkina as Carmen and Evgeny Ivanchenko as Escamillo in the Alonso / Shchedrin Carmen Suite. Photo: Natasha Razina / Mariinsky ©

Other Major Versions

Alonso/Shchedrin Carmen Suite

In the 60s Alberto Alonso was asked by Bolshoi star Maya Plisetskaya to create a ballet based on Carmen for her. He started to experiment with members of his own Ballet Nacional de Cuba before he could travel to Moscow and rehearse Plisetskaya, so for his Carmen he introduced some steps from Cuban dances. Rodion Shchedrin had already composed many works for his wife Plisetskaya, including The Humpbacked Horse (1960) and Anna Karenina (1972) and, having seen her initial rehearsals with Alonso, he agreed to arrange music for the ballet. He reorchestrated the opera using new instruments and themes from another of Bizet’s works L’Arlesienne as well as Massenet’s Le Cid, thus creating the Carmen Suite.

The Mariinsky Ballet's production of the Alonso/Shchedrin Carmen Suite. Photo: Valentin Baranvosky / Mariinsky ©.

Alonso’s scenario centered on Carmen, Don José and the bullfighter Escamillo. Carmen is a passionate, free-spirited woman in contrast to the temperamental and fickle Don José. Fate, a ballerina dressed in black and a representation of Carmen’s alter ego, shows Carmen the cards. After a fight with tobacco dealers, Carmen seduces Don José and convinces him to release her from jail. Carmen is subsequently caught in a love triangle between Don José and popular bullfighter Escamillo.

Boris Messerer’s designs included a mock bullring with masked spectators and a uniformed judge, representing society’s disapproval for the unconventional behaviour of Carmen and her lovers. Fate reappears in the final act playing the role of a bull and the three main characters meet in the arena. Carmen dances alternatively with Fate, Escamillo and Don José until she is stabbed. She dies caressing Don José’s face, revealing him as the assassin.

Carmen Suite premiered at the Bolshoi in April 1967. With Shchedrin’s score under heavy criticism as measured against Bizet’s work, the ballet’s second performance had to be scrapped and replaced by The Nutcracker. The score was only accepted by the public after Shostakovich spoke about its merits. Nowadays Carmen Suite is still performed by the Bolshoi and Ballet Nacional de Cuba and has recently been added to the Mariinsky repertoire where Ulyana Lopatkina, Irma Nioradze and Yekaterina Kondaurova have danced the title role.

Mats Ek’s Carmen

This Carmen was created for Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet in 1992 using Shchedrin’s suite. Mats Ek tells the story using symbolism and parody, attempting to weave together Merrimée’s and Bizet’s versions of the heroine. Bizet saw Carmen as an individualist, who fought for her freedom while Mérimée sees her as the devil in disguise.

Lauren Cuthbertson as M in Mats Ek's Carmen. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

The ballet opens and closes with Don José facing the firing squad. He’s about to be executed for the murder of his lover Carmen and in between, her story is presented as a series of flashback events. Carmen is an irreverent tart whose huge cigar represents a masculine soul within a feminine body, Don José is a wimp, a shy countryman who falls prey to Carmen. Escamillo is brassy and used to female attention; for him Carmen is just a pastime. The character of M (Micaëla, Madre/mother, Muerte/death), Don José’s faithful fiancé, is a symbol of fate, conscience, life, death and the feminine ideal.

The designs and sets are cartoonish, with a metallic backdrop and panels which are suggestive of Spanish fans, as well as a large exercise ball downstage. The shiny and ruffled dresses are a throwback to the 80s. The men wear grey wool except for Escamillo and the captain of the guard (the officer). Dancers speak, shout and smoke cigars. Ek’s style is contemporary, with only a few nods to classicism. Think parallel legs, pliés à la seconde and flexed feet. This version of Carmen is currently in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet, Cullberg Ballet, Lyon Opera Ballet, National Theatre Ballet of Prague and the Polish National Opera Ballet.

Tamara Rojo in Mats Ek's Carmen. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Other versions of Carmen

Throughout the years, there have been many other ballets and modern choreographic adaptations of Carmen, most of them set to Bizet’s original score or Shchedrin’s suite, although John Cranko‘s 1971 version was choreographed to a score by Wolfgang Fortner and Wilfried Steinbrenner. Other recent versions include:

  • Davide Bombana’s 2009 Carmen for National Ballet of Canada, choreographed to a remix of the Carmen Suite by Tambours du Bronx, with vocals by Meredith Monk.

Ulyana Lopatkina as Carmen and Danila Korsuntsev as Don José in the Alonso / Shchedrin Carmen Suite. Photo: Natasha Razina / Mariinsky ©

The Music

With his Carmen Bizet intended to give opera-comique a more contemporary feel, adding stronger and more realistic emotions. The work premiered at the Opéra-Comique of Paris in May 1875 under heavy criticism and its inaugural run was almost halted after the fifth performance. But towards 1880 public perception shifted and Carmen became increasingly popular. It is now a staple of the operatic repertoire.

Although the work has a very Spanish flavour, Carmen doesn’t have any authentic Spanish rhythms or themes. The opera’s libretto is in French and based on Part III of Mérimée’s novella. It eliminates various elements such as Carmen’s husband and adds new characters such as Micaëla (Don José’s fiancé) and Escamillo, the bullfighter. These two roles served as dynamic contrasts to those of Carmen and Don José. The score contains leitmotifs for these various characters and a general theme for each scene.

Rodion Shchedrin’s reworking of Bizet’s score condenses the 3 hour operatic version to bare essentials, presenting an imaginative parody of the original (or more exactly, a parody of a pastiche work). It emphasises rhythms via heavy percussion: xylophones, cymbals, castanets and bells. Shchedrin’s score still respects the original source but pushes the music in unexpected directions, enhancing the atmosphere and drama.


  • Natalia Makarova as Carmen and Denis Ganio as Don José in Roland Petit’s Carmen [link]
  • Mikhail Baryshnikov as Don José in Roland Petit’s Carmen [link]
  • Zizi Jeanmaire as Carmen and Mikhail Baryshnikov as Don José in Roland Petit’s Carmen[link]
  • Alicia Alonso in the Habanera variation from Alonso/Shchedrin Carmen Suite [link]
  • Maya Plisetskaya as Carmen and Nikolai Fadeyechev as Don José in a Pas de Deux of Carmen Suite [link]
  • Svetlana Zakharova as Carmen from Alonso/Shchedrin Carmen Suite [link]
  • Maria Alexandrova in the Alonso/Shchedrin Carmen Suite [link]
  • A Mariinsky feature on their production of the Alonso/Shchedrin Carmen Suite with Ulyana Lopatkina [Part 1] & [Part 2]
  • Ana Laguna as Carmen and Marc Hwang as Don José in Mats Ek’s Carmen [link]

Tamara Rojo as Carmen and Bennet Gartside as Escamillo in Mats Ek's Carmen. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©


Original Choreography: Roland Petit for Les Ballets de Paris
Music: Georges Bizet arranged and orchestrated by André Girard
Designs: Antoni Clavé
Premiere: 21 February, 1949 at the Prince’s Theatre, London
Original Cast: Renée “Zizi” Jeanmaire as Carmen, Roland Petit as Don José and Serge Perrault as Escamillo.

Original Choreography: Alberto Alonso for Bolshoi Ballet
Music: Rodion Shchedrin après Georges Bizet
Designs: Boris Messerer
Costumes: Salvador Fernández
Premiere: 20 April, 1967 at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
Original Cast: Maya Plisetskaya as Carmen, Nicolai Fadeyechev as Don José and Sergei Radchenko as Escamillo.

Choreography: Mats Ek for The Cullberg Ballet
Music: Georges Bizet re-scored by Rodion Shchedrin
Designs: Marie-Louise Ekman
Costumes: Jörgen Hansoon
Premiere: 13 May, 1992 at Riksteatern, Stockholm
Original Cast: Ana Laguna as Carmen.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Carmen As If – Heavy on symbolism by Catherin Pawlick. Review of the Polish National Opera’s Ballet. Dance Magazine, 2005 [link]
  2. Ballet Met Notes on Carmen by Gerard Charles. October, 1997 [link]
  3. Mats Ek’s Carmen. Notes on the Ballet at Causa Carmen [link]
  4. Programme Notes for The Royal Ballet’s Production of Mats Ek’s Carmen
  5. Carmen and her updates: An Introduction by Guy Bensusan. USDLA Journal, Vol. 16, No 3. March 2002 [link]
  6. Wikipedia Entry for Carmen (novella) [link]
  7. Wikipedia Entry for Carmen [link]
  8. Dancing Carmen, Dancing Freedom by Rosella Simonari at Critical Dance [link]
  9. Royal Opera House online entry for Mats Ek’s Carmen [link]

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.


  • January 31, 2013


    Saw the Cuba National Spanish ballet perform Carmen in Cienfuegos, Cuba last week and thoroughly enjoyed it. Wish there was a small video from the performance. The roll of the bull was the highlight of the night.

  • [...] a second example, check out the first two minutes of the following clip of Carmen. Here you can spot the “wavy back” in the character of ‘M’. Notice how Ek [...]

  • March 10, 2012


    loved it

  • [...] violence in Williams’s own universe. On a circular stage that recalls the mock bullring from Alonso’s Carmen, the above monologue and short episodes from A Streetcar Named Desire are given on a loop, in a [...]

  • August 5, 2011

    A Tale of Two Carmens

    [...] journey from love to obsession. Elsewhere, the company thrived in Petit’s drama. Among the various versions of Carmen out there, Petit’s undeniably packs more bang for your buck. We keep our fingers crossed and [...]

  • [...] addition to The Little Humpbacked Horse, Shchedrin wrote the following ballets: Carmen Suite (1967), based on the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet, Anna Karenina (1971), The Seagull (1980) and [...]

  • February 27, 2011


    Svetlana is the best CARMEN !i love her

  • May 27, 2010


    Many thanks. Let us know when you have tried it Sarah, would love to hear your impressions!

  • May 25, 2010

    Carmen Opera fan

    I am a huge fan of the opera production of Carmen, and am intrigued to see the ballet version. I like your discription of the music and the way the composers have condensed the operatic version for the ballet. I’m curious as to whether I would enjoy it in the same way as the opera, will have to try and see it one day.


  • [...] Wheeldon’s ballet-meets-art-installation Electric Counterpoint and Mats Ek’s irreverent Carmen was Asphodel Meadows, Liam Scarlett’s first ballet for the ROH main stage. After critically [...]