With Johan Inger’s Carmen, the Compañía Nacional de Danza (CND) de España has taken a step beyond — it’s the biggest, boldest contemporary ballet not just of our season but possibly of the decade. Artistic Director José Carlos Martínez has marshaled every tool available to the producer of contemporary dance — a cutting-edge set, dramatic lighting, imaginative costumes, advanced digital sound, and, most important, a category-transcending corps of brilliant dancers. But what makes this stunning expenditure of artistic resources matter is that it’s unleashed in the service of an epic vision. Choreographer Inger has shown us a big glimpse of what 21st-century ballet might become, and if it’s a bit much to take in all at once right now, perhaps that was a good reason to bring the show in, as UCSB Arts & Lectures did, for a two-night run.
Stretched across two sprawling, layered, and densely textured acts, Inger’s Carmen puts the femme fatale in a more comprehensive context than she ever has been granted before. Conjured from the fertile, imaginative soil of paranoid male fantasy, the idea of a seductress sans merci has done all kinds of cultural work — and psychic damage — for generations now. In Inger’s version, and in particular through Daan Vervoort’s performance of Don José, the agony underpinning this compulsion to fear, blame, and ultimately destroy the sexualized female finally becomes visible. In a potent solo early in Act Two, Vervoort’s Don José melts down emotionally to jagged shards of distorted sound. As the Boy, Leona Sivos offered a new perspective on Carmen’s relentless triangulation of desire by bearing silent witness to the story’s ugly manifestations of machismo.
A 14-person ensemble referred to in the program as the Shadows gave Kayoko Everhart’s Carmen an additional foil, embodying the social, institutional, and emotional forces that stalk her to her bleak end. The seething configurations of this masked mob gave this Carmen a futuristic cast, as though these Shadows were foreshadowing deeper shadows to come. Congratulations to CND, and thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures for bringing this mind-expanding work of art to the city.