Amedeo Amodio speaks about his Carmen

A tangled web of obsession, jealousy, love and betrayal takes center stage when Ballet West, Salt Lake City, Utah, presents the Utah premiere of Amedeo Amodio’s Carmen, 2004 November 5-13 at the Capitol Theatre. This is a masterfully choreographed ballet rendition of the classic opera.

“We are presenting this story alive with dance, and in a way you’ve never seen it before,” said Ballet West Artistic Director Jonas Kåge. “Amodio’s remarkable choreography works wonderfully with this famous musical score. There’s a lot of contemporary movement in it that will look good on the company: the more they do this sort of thing, the better they’re getting at it!”

Amodio, who created the ballet for his own company, Aterballetto, had been toying with the idea for his setting of the work for a number of years before he actually had a company on which he could set it. In addition to the opera, there have been unusual movie adaptations and even an ice ballet featuring Gold Medalist Katerina Witt—and many, many ballets. About 25 productions exist, beginning with Petipa’s in 1847 (he choreographed based on the book before Bizet had yet composed the opera); the list of choreographers includes John Cranko, Ruth Page, Charles Weidman, Alberto Alonso, and Mats Ek.

So why another Carmen?

For one, Amodio had the idea to scale back the production from its often-extravagant production values.

“I wanted to explore the psychological inner workings and interrelationships of the four main characters,” says Amodio, speaking through a translator shortly before the production opens. “Those are Carmen, Don  José, Micaela, and Escamillo. It’s a small, intimate setting of the story, small enough that we can have two complete casts.”

The ballet employs a non-vocal setting of Bizet’s famous score (so the arias are all there, they’re simply given instrumental rather than vocal life). Its focus on the four principals allows it to be performed in two acts instead of the opera’s four. It also takes an interesting narrative twist: it begins with the fall of the curtain on a traditional performance of the opera. The audience is transported backstage where the stage crew begins to strike the scenery of the show as the artists change into their everyday clothes. However, the passion and energy of this story still fills the stage. A member of the crew tries on the jacket that the artist playing Don José wore in the opera. A member of the orchestra crosses the stage on her way out. They bump into each other. A gesture, a phrase, a look, and slowly they start to identify themselves in each of the characters in each of the roles, as does the rest of the cast and crew. They have been captured by the spirit of the drama they just finished performing.

Amodio has never been a stranger to movement. He studied violin for two years in his youth; although he loved the music, he didn’t like the way he had to stay in one position all the time. So off he went to study ballet at the Teatro alla Scala, home of the great Italian ballerina Carla Fracci. He began his career there and worked with many of the great choreographers of the 20th century—Balanchine, Ashton, Robbins, Cranko, Petit, and (though he does not look old enough) Massine among them. Interestingly in light of Ballet West’s recent Anthony Tudor program, he considers Tudor a genius and “The Lilac Garden,” in which he danced at one time, a great masterpiece.

He combined dancing with choreography for much of his career. Amodio says his real impetus to mount his own work was the arrival of Cranko to set his Romeo and Juliet on the company. Soon he was trying out experiemental work on students in the school. In 1979 he accepted the opportunity to be artistic director for a new ballet Company called Aterballetto. Under his direction, Aterballetto distinguished itself as a company known for its vast and exceptional quality of repertory both developed in-house by Amodio and imported from well-known choreographers from around the world.

He contrasts his own work with that of a Tudor piece like “Lilac”.

“With Tudor,” he says, “it’s important that every move be exact because he communicates so much dramatically through his movements. I don’t feel I’m quite in the same league when it comes to designing movements that are so precise that they evoke in the dancer the feelings I want them to feel the way Tudor does. When I restage a ballet on a different group of dancers, I’m not looking to recreate the new dancers in the exact image of the originals. I choose them somewhat intuitively after I give them parts of the choreography to work with; I see which dancers I feel would be best for which roles. But from there, I like to give them the freedom to develop the characters on their own, to shape the roles in their own way, to dance the roles in the way that is best for them.”

Those casting choices include Maggie Wright and Kristin Hakala as the fiery Gypsy woman Carmen, Seth Olson and Christopher Ruud as Don  José, the soldier who becomes smitten with her; Christiana Bennet and Annie Breneman as Don  José’s would-be fiancee Micaela; and Michael Bearden and Hwa Zhuang as Escamillo, the arrogant but virile toreador to whom Carmen is also attracted.

Movement is classically-based with a fair amount of contemporary arm and torso movements; ladies in the cast end up dancing in bare feet and slippers as well as on pointe. Amodio says the technical challenges of the main roles are those any good dancer could pull off and that the real challenge is in the character nuances. Breneman has a slightly different take: “There’s a lot of movement in the back and torso in Amedeo’s choreography that you wouldn’t do in a strictly classical work. It’s sent a lot of us off to see our chiropractors and massage therapists after rehearsals!”