“Wait, how did you just give her tickets?” cried an anxious woman beside us as we hurried past the long box office line and into a packed Lobero. At 13 years old, the State Street Ballet (SSB) is outgrowing the cozy confines of its theatrical home, just in time for the March 2008 reopening of the Granada. In the meantime, those of us fortunate enough to have secured tickets early are being treated to terrific dance productions in an intimate, lovely, historical theater-and those left out in the cold have reason to be jealous.
Met with favorable reviews at its Hollywood premiere last summer, SSB’s Carmen is by far the company’s most ambitious and most dazzling ballet yet, choreographed by New York’s William Soleau and set to the original Georges Bizet score. There is nothing new about the plot of this timeworn, tragic tale: A man leaves his fiancee for a femme fatale, only to be spurned by his new lover, finally killing her in a fit of rage. At the 1875 opening of the opera, Carmen was denounced as superficial and immoral. The story’s shock value has waned in our modern soap-opera era, but in Soleau’s hands, its fiery gypsy passions are reignited, and its portrayal of the brutality of denied desire is as horrific as it is thrilling.
SSB’s artistic director, Rodney Gustafson, has long been interested in contemporary ballet, but he’s also a savvy businessman, and he has bided his time, building his company’s reputation based on a classical repertoire with a twist here and there. With Carmen, he has taken a decisive step into exciting new territory. Soleau starts out with the obligatory fanfare and fluff, but quickly delves down into a distinctly modern vocabulary-angular shoulders, swirling floor work, hunched-over contractions, and flexed-footed lifts-that draws out the tale’s tensions. Notable scenes include Carmen’s seduction of Don Jose, who has been entrusted with imprisoning her for starting a brawl. Her hands bound with twine, she lunges at her captor, catching his head between her wrists and pulling him to the ground. When they are caught, Don Jose’s fellow soldiers beat him up in eerie slow motion.
Leila Drake (Carmen) and Ryan Camou (Don Jose) joined the company in 2004 and 2005 respectively, but both perform with the confidence of seasoned soloists; Camou’s growing obsession and moral agony are particularly poignant, and Drake’s sharp, sinewy femininity oozes with sex and danger. More than two-thirds of SSB’s dancers are new to the company within the past two years, a fresh infusion that bodes well for SSB’s upward trajectory.