PNB world premiere of 'Carmen'; Multimedia production of passionate story still pivots around dance

"Our move to the Mercer Arts Arena created a certain apprehension," said the artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. "We wanted to do something intriguing and new to attract the audience to the space."
Stowell decided to create a full-length ballet of "Carmen" that embraces the PNB's new home.
Technical director Randall Chiarelli created stark modules for scenery and eliminated the need for flying the backdrops to the ceiling, something difficult to do in the new space.
In a reflection of the Mercer Arena's rock show past, this "Carmen" also uses live video projections, a first for the PNB, to show the story behind the story in the ballet. Italian artist and architect Iole Alessandrini designed the projections
"We wanted to get our public closer to our performers," Stowell said. "There's a lot of new technology in this show. Some of the dancers are also camerapersons. Making all that work is a complicated part of the process."
Complicated enough that the PNB's longtime technical director Chiarelli confessed to suffering a few sleepless nights prior to getting his crew into the space.
"We couldn't go in until Monday (Jan. 28)," said Chiarelli, although he admitted to sneaking over to a few "Madama Butterfly" rehearsals to see how the Seattle Opera was dealing with the space. "We're lucky that the Opera got there first and got to work out some of the bugs."
Despite the foray into video, Stowell doesn't want the electronics to overwhelm the ballet.
"I think too much of our current entertainment in television and movies relies on special effects. For me, the movie 'Lord of the Rings' was all about the effects," he said. "While some of our audience may find the video challenging, they'll have familiarity with the dancers. The dancing is still primary."

Who is Carmen?
For non-opera buffs, there have been at least 15 movie adaptations of Prosper MTrimTe's 1845 novella, most using the basic story from Bizet's 1875 libretto. Although deemed vulgar and immoral in its initial stage run, the Bizet opera became part of the basic repertoire for all Western opera companies.
Carmen is a gypsy girl who warns men that loving her is dangerous. Despite the warnings (or because of them), the soldier Don JosT falls in love with gypsy, helps her escape from prison and abandons his nice girl fiancTe, Micaela. Carmen eventually gets bored with the soldier and abandons him for the flashy matador Escamillo. Rather than returning to Micaela, JosT pursues Carmen. When she tells him that she'd rather be dead than go back to him, he stabs her.
For the choreographer, the personalities of the story's characters suggested the structure of the dance. Stowell wanted Carmen to be more picturesque while Micaela would be all movement and soft lines.
"JosT is this nice, sweet tortured guy," Stowell said, "while Escamillo is the perfect matador type."

Not just Bizet
Although the new ballet uses part of Bizet's familiar music, Stowell was also drawn to the dramatic percussive score that Rodion Shchedrin created for Alberto Alonso's "Carmen Suite" in 1967.
"Really, the music was the base for my decision [to adapt this story]," he said. Following the advice of PNB Music Director Stuart Kershaw, a musical outline was created using Bizet, Shchedrin and Alonso.
"For [the character of] Micaela, we wanted to use the most tender music," Stowell said, "to create the classic difference between the good girl and bad girl."
When he wrote the ballet's libretto with co-artistic director Francia Russell, Stowell also strayed from the opera's storyline.
"The story will match up with the expectations [of the opera's fans]," Stowell said.
But, within the framework of the familiar story, Stowell also wanted the audience to see the typical life of a dancer, onstage and off.
To further remove the ballet from typical "Carmen" expectations, Stowell asked costume designer Larae Hacall to make costumes that "use hot Spanish colors without looking characteristically Spanish" and "make a contemporary impression with evoking any particular period."
Even if the video projections are the hit of the night, Stowell doesn't see himself going high tech again in the near future.
"I'd rather spend money on people than machines," he said.

"Carmen" will be performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet from Jan. 31-Feb. 10 at the Mercer Arts Arena, on Mercer Street one half block east of the old Opera House. Tickets: $15-$115. Information: 292-ARTS.
[[In-content Ad]]