A Tale of Two Carmens

Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most successful operas of all time and its popularity has led the way to many choreographic interpretations, deriving more or less directly from Mérimée’s libretto. Two of the most often performed ballet versions are Roland Petit’s for Ballets de Paris – created in 1949 and using Bizet’s original score – and Alberto Alonso’s for the Bolshoi – choreographed to Rodion Shchedrin’s reorchestration. Recently, each of us had the opportunity to sample a Carmen ballet, with Linda following English National Ballet‘s Roland Petit season at the Coliseum in London, and Emilia the Mariinsky’s Shchedrin season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Below are our combined thoughts:

Roland Petit’s Carmen / English National Ballet

Linda says:

With the dominance of Ashton and MacMillan in British companies, it is  unsurprising that audiences here should not be familiar with the works of other major 20th-century choreographers. Roland Petit was certainly one of the most revered of them but, sadly, his ballets are rarely seen in London. We had been very much looking forward to English National Ballet’s scheduled showcase of Petit’s most important works and his death, less than two weeks before opening night, turned this string of six performances into a fitting tribute to his talent, showing us what made him such an important choreographic voice.

Roland Petit gave us sex, death and raw emotion at a time when audiences expected fairy tale ballets filled with delicate creatures dressed in tutus and tulle (I thought it was quite ironic that, the following week, Swan Lake was the opener for the Mariinsky’s London tour). Petit’s works have a strong theatrical voice filled with real characters. His Carmen, in particular, offers an explosive fiesta (beautifully framed by Antoni Clavé’s colourful designs). A romp on stage, with tobacco factory girls and gypsies fighting, dancing and flirting. But on top of the visual spectacle, there are also the individual dramas of Carmen and Don José, which appear as abridged versions of Mérimée’s original characters. Petit chose to center his ballet around their obsessive relationship and its deep eroticism, surrounding their encounters with grand ensemble scenes that preserve the Spanish flavour of Bizet’s music.

Begoña Cao as Carmen and Fabian Reimair as Don José in English National Ballet's production of Roland Petit's Carmen. Photo: Patrick Baldwin / ENB ©

Petit’s Carmen is sexy, wilful and fierce. Her signature cropped, pixie-like, hair clearly separates her from other women, and when she appears on stage for the first time, both dancers and audience are expected to react to her powerful presence. The choreography for Carmen emphasises the legs, used to assert her position on stage, to tease and tempt. The bedroom scene with Don José is essentially a seduction game and the steps are nothing less than explicit. Their final encounter at the sound of the drums is unadulterated drama, and nowhere else are Petit’s skills as an entertainer better put on display: this scene really keeps you at the edge of your seat. When Carmen dies at Don José’s hands, there is a sense that the audience has reached the end of a full emotional ride. It is easy to see why Petit’s Carmen has remained popular since its premiere in 1949.

ENB’s Begoña Cao and Fabian Reimair, both debuting in the roles of Carmen and Don José, might not yet have found the perfect mix of  sexiness and unquenchable passion that are required by their roles, but Cao’s use of her sultry eyes and legs that go on for miles made her an engaging Carmen which will only get better with additional performances, while Reimair has already mastered Don José’s journey from love to obsession. The whole company seemed to thrive 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 hope ENB and other companies can continue to bring more Petit to these shores.

Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite / Mariinsky Ballet

Emilia says:

My recent experience of Carmen as a ballet was a very different one. To round off their Shchedrin-dedicated season at the Met, the Mariinsky presented a couple of weeks ago Alberto Alonso’s Carmen (which uses Shchedrin’s reorchestration of Bizet’s opera with insertions from L’Arlesienne as well as Massenet’s Le Cid), paired with the Balanchine-Bizet classic combo of Symphony in C.  Choreographed by Alberto Alonso for Bolshoi star Maya Plisetskaya in the 60s, the ballet only entered the Mariinsky repertory very recently.

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

Alonso’s work centers on Carmen, Don José, the bullfighter Escamillo and the Corregidor, with none of the usual gypsy shenanigans, tobacco factory or bullfighting scenes. In lieu of a corps de ballet there are only 3 female soloists and a  fifth main character, Fate (here danced by a terrific Yulia Stepanova), a ballerina dressed in a black unitard and a representation of Carmen’s alter ego. The ballet is almost an abstract piece, with isolated episodes, or vignettes and very little sense of narrative and flow. I never got a true sense of Don José’s jealousy and impulsiveness and certainly didn’t see it coming when he finally “air stabbed” Carmen, so at least for me, she seemed to be collapsing in his arms for no apparent reason (see photo above).

On the whole, this version of Carmen seems a bit dated and kitsch. As Don José, the statuesque Danila Korsuntsev looked uncomfortable in a pink blouse that was a lot more Cuban salsa than Spanish ruffle. In the title role, Ulyana Lopatkina had a cool detachment that completely went against what one expects from the famous character, who is most often portrayed as a passionate, free-spirited woman. It did not help that the work looked so static. As Dance Magazine’s Wendy Perron well noted “there are so many straight leg lifts in the choreography that the dancers appear rigid”. Carmen dances interchangeably with Fate, Escamillo and Don José, but in all these dances – and for about 40 minutes – she seems to be executing exactly the same “look at my killer legs” movements. As an abstraction on the theme of Carmen, I think Mats Ek’s 1992 version for Cullberg Ballet, with all its oddities and quirks, has a lot more to say.

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).


  • August 8, 2011


    Hi Danja,

    Many thanks for your insights. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Alonso’s Carmen feels so outdated, as the political commentary represents a chapter of history that has since been reshaped. We completely agree with you: Maya was something else in this role (at least from the few clips we have seen), more hot blooded & expressive. We also wonder how the ballet looks nowadays as danced by the Bolshoi.



  • Paying tribute to @theballetbag’s recent http://tinyurl.com/439sxoh, a pyro-tech Lopatkina’s Carmen Alonso ver. http://youtu.be/aFWSUe7lRAY

  • August 8, 2011


    I really enjoyed reading your analysis of the two Carmen ballets. I have only seen an excerpt of Petit’s Carmen, but I do remember it was very sexy. Many years ago I watched a recording of Alonso’s Carmen after listening to Mr. Alonso himself describe the motivation behind the story and the choreography. So, although it may not have followed the traditional Bizet narrative, he explained that his ballet had some anti-communist themes hidden within it. Perhaps one should view his Carmen as more of a political commentary than a love story. Having studied with Mr. Alonso and having loved Ms. Plisetskaya dancing, I am very partial to this version of Carmen. I’ve seen Ms. Lopatkina dance La Bayadere a few years ago, and I was absolutely unmoved by her long limbs and her “cool detachment”, therefore I can definitely see how she would not be the right choice for the role.

  • A Tale of Two Carmens! http://t.co/ptzOvOI (via @theballetbag )

  • Great piece via @theballetbag on #RolandPetit’s & Alonso’s Carmens Tale of Two Carmens – http://t.co/JqL3ME0 – Thank you ladies!

  • August 6, 2011

    Juliet Ashdown

    I reallly enjoyed the Petit Carmen, and hope to see it more often.

    Let’s hope that ENB bring it back!

  • New in the bag: A tale of 2 Carmens: Petit vs. Alonso deathmatch http://t.co/S87fLau

  • August 5, 2011

    Pink Lady (@BlogPinkLady)

    Great article on #RolandPetit’s & Alonso’s Carmens @theballetbag Tale of Two Carmens – http://t.co/DUuqO2a Thank you! (via @BalletandPhotos)