REVIEW: Carmen with L’Arlésienne (Royal New Zealand Ballet)

Review by Brigitte Knight


[Power of Petit]

Royal New Zealand Ballet Artistic Director Francesco Ventriglia has a personal reason for bringing Roland Petit’s work to New Zealand – he danced two key roles early in his own career under the ‘Maestro’. Petit’s work is a treat for Kiwi audiences, and a first for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Roland Petit (1924-2011) was a masterful and widely respected choreographer, producing key works in the classical and neoclassical ballet repertoire. Two works billed together lay the foundation for the success of the season, as they allow the flavours and nuances of his choreographic signature to surface and resonate with the audience.

Both L’Arlésienne and Carmen boast set designs of extraordinary richness and beauty. L’Arlésienne is simple and warm, paired seamlessly with perfectly-considered lighting. By contrast, the set for Carmen is layered and full, providing depth, height and wonderful colour. It is remarkable that a set designed in 1949 still feels absolutely modern and original – a testament to Antoni Clavé’s exquisite artistry.

The programme opens with L’Arlésienne, a ballet created by Petit in 1974, and based on the play of the same name by Alphonse Daudet. The loosely-narrative short ballet follows Frédéri and Vivette as their wedding day approaches. Despite Vivette’s efforts to help him, Frédéri is captivated and then obsessed by an unknown, unseen woman. He loses his reason, and, at the end of the ballet, his life.

The movement vocabulary of L’Arlésienne is recognisably 1970’s, with a clear commitment to a rhythmic, neoclassical style. The work relies on geometric arrangements of the corps de ballet, explorations of unison and canon, and superb ensemble skills.  As the ballet (which follows the classical structure of corps, pas de deux and solos) unfolds, it reveals Petit’s ability to communicate the essences – love, death, passion – of life in completely new ways. Pas de deux connections, for example, demonstrate a ceaseless curiosity for alternatives; the head is supported instead of the waist, the feet are flirtatious instead of the hips. Frédéri (Shaun James Kelly) and Vivette (Madeleine Graham) develop plausible intimacy onstage, with all the light and shade true intimacy prescribes. Kelly’s attack and use of space in his final, fabulous manège draws well-deserved applause from the delighted audience.  L’Arlésienne posseses both humour and tragedy, and draws the audience closer so subtlely that I am surprised by the intensity of my feelings during the final moments of the ballet.

Carmen, a more familiar story for many, retains the ability to surprise. Petit’s masterful and detailed choreography is demanding and precise; a great showcase of the dancer’s skills. Guest artist Natalya Kusch is sublime in the title role of Carmen, perfoming with technical prowess and artistic characterisation in equal measure. The partnering is especially challenging, with unusal connections between the leading dancers creating bold and vital alignments and lifts. I particularly enjoy Petit’s use of Carmen and Don José (Joseph Skelton) dancing in sharp profile to the audience; a restrained and effective device. Royal New Zealand Ballet corps work is fantastic in Carmen, and invigorated by the use of voice and percussion.

In his programme notes, Ventriglia says “…both Carmen and L’Arlésienne are full of passion – all life is there” and he is absolutely right.;  RNZB’s Petit season is a complete delight.

Carmen with L’Arlésienne plays at the Aotea Centre until 1st April. Details see RNZB

SEE ALSO: review by Jenny Stevenson

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