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2.110664 - BUBENÍČEK, J.: Carmen [Ballet] (Teatro dell'Opera di Roma Ballet, 2019) (NTSC)
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Bubeníček’s Carmen

An interview with Jiří Bubeníček
by Rossella Battisti

Jiří Bubeníček has led two artistic lives during the course of his career. The first began in 1993, when he joined John Neumeier’s company in Hamburg, becoming one of its leading dancers together with his twin brother Otto. The second was launched when quite by chance he got bitten by the choreography bug, when he was hanging around backstage because he hadn’t been included in a cast and found himself in a room with a friend who was rehearsing some songs. ‘I asked him if I could use them as the basis for a choreography’, he says, ‘and with his consent I created my first solo dance.’ This was in 1999; since then, Jiří’s ‘sideline’ has slowly but surely absorbed more and more of his time and energies. ‘I began doing it just for myself, I wanted to create something that was tailor-made for me to perform, and then I found myself doing it for others. The first time you get paid, you feel that you’ve really arrived as a choreographer. It’s a long process.’

With his elegant and almost haughty gait, his open chest and lofty gaze, at the age of 44 Bubeníček still has the strong features of the ‘danseur noble’ that he was until only yesterday – indeed until today, when he lifted up a ballerina during the rehearsals for Carmen, the ballet commissioned by the Rome Opera – as if she were a twig. He demonstrates a complicated sequence of steps, and it’s as if an inheritance built up over many years was animating his muscles. In his ‘previous life’, Jiří had it all: he won the Prix de Lausanne, he became the principal male dancer of the Hamburg Ballet, where Neumeier created the title-role in his Nijinsky ballet for him, or in a double-act with his twin in a disturbing pas de deux in Neumeier’s Illusions – like Swan Lake. He then moved to the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden, while Otto remained in Hamburg. ‘Having a twin is a bit like being married to the same person for years’, he jokes. ‘When we were kids, we used to think that we would follow in the footsteps of our parents, who were circus acrobats. It seemed a fantastic life. Then we were noticed by a dance teacher who asked our father to enrol us at dance school. At first we were miserable there, but then our teacher won us over and dance became our life!’ The two brothers were briefly separated during their dancing careers, but then came back together again to form their own company, Les Ballets Bubeníček, and now collaborate in the creation of its repertoire, with Otto designing the sets and costumes and Jiří devising the choreography.

The transformation was completed in 2015, when Jiří – a few months after his brother made a similar career move in Hamburg – said goodbye to the stage with a performance of MacMillan’s Manon in Dresden. Since then, he has devoted himself to an extremely successful ‘Plan B’. Starting with short numbers such as solos and duets, he quickly graduated to full-length ballets, spanning a wide range of different subjects. In 2016, the poignant story of Doctor Zhivago, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, was made into a ballet for the first time for the Slovene National Opera and Ballet Theatre in Ljubljana. This was followed by a fairy-tale ballet about the lovesick water nymph Rusalka for Karlsruhe in 2017, and then by a plunge into the futuristic dystopia Metropolis, inspired by Thea von Harbou’s novel and by Fritz Lang’s even more famous film version. The premiere of his ballet based on Kafka’s claustrophobic novel The Trial, created for the Royal Swedish Ballet, will take place in May. But before that, the premiere of his Carmen ballet is to be given in Rome.

‘It was Eleonora Abbagnato who suggested that I create a new version. She saw my Doctor Zhivago in Ljubljana and really liked it’, Jiří explains. ‘As far as I’m concerned, I’m delighted to accept this opportunity to return to Rome with Les Ballets Bubeníček and a full-length ballet, after having worked there in 2011, when we just did a few short pieces.’

Is this the first time that you’ve created a ballet inspired by a work already in the repertoire?

Yes, I usually like to be inspired by something new, by something that’s never been done as a ballet before. However, Carmen is an exciting subject, and I wanted to create a completely new work based on it – not a single-act ballet based on Bizet’s score, but a two-act ballet lasting about two hours. I didn’t look at any earlier works based on the same subject, but instead I focused on Prosper Mérimée’s story and guided by this, I put more emphasis on aspects that have previously been glossed over. For example, the detailed description of the cigar factory where hundreds of girls work in a highly erotic atmosphere. They are sweating, dishevelled and ooze sexuality! I’ve also taken the settings of the forest and of the port of Gibraltar from the book. And I’ve had a spectacular horse built, inspired by the Prague puppet theatre. However, all the action follows that of the story, beginning with Don José’s confessions to Mérimée before he is hanged for his crimes.

What’s your Carmen like?

She’s a totally free and feral creature. A wild spirit, like an unbroken horse. When José tries to persuade her to start a new life together with him and to have a family with him, in other words to have a more stable existence, she rebels and tells him that the more he asks her this, the more she will shun him. She is a beautiful gypsy, full of energy and desire, hungry for life’s pleasures.

And Don José?

He is a man unsure about the path he should take in life. According to Mérimée, at first he wants to become a priest, but he ends up becoming a soldier and is then transformed into a violent man who kills his lieutenant and also, in a fit of jealousy, Carmen’s husband.

As it’s inspired by the original story, this ballet doesn’t feature the characters that were added later by Bizet’s librettists, such as Don José’s fiancée Micaëla and Escamillo…

But I still couldn’t bear to forego the Toreador’s aria – it’s just too gorgeous!

But the music of the ballet is not drawn only from Bizet’s opera: it contains passages from Albéniz, De Falla and – a little surprisingly – Mario Castelnuovo- Tedesco. The latter is not so well known, though as a result of his friendship with Segovia, he became one of the most important composers of guitar music. There’s also some music by Gabriele Bonolis.

I heard by chance some pieces by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and they seemed to me to be a good match for my realisation of the story, which involves a guitarist and three or four on-stage musicians. I asked Gabriele Bonolis, for whom I have a very high regard as a composer and conductor, if he could help me put together a score into which the new musical elements could be incorporated seamlessly. He came to see me in Dresden, where we spent several days together, absorbed in intense work.

As you’ve dispensed with the figure of Escamillo, how do you bring the tragedy to its dénouement?

José waits the whole night for Carmen to come home, imagining that she has been unfaithful. When she arrives, they start to argue and he tries to persuade her to change her lifestyle and to go away with him somewhere. In the end, she’s fed up and throws away the ring he gave her. At this point, overcome with exasperation, he kills her.

The story of Carmen, who dies, killed by the man who says he loves her but who cannot accept and respect her free nature, sadly echoes what’s happening in society today, where murders of women are commonplace. Was it your intention that your ballet should contain an element of criticism of society?

In many countries, women are killed or raped. I find it unsettling that in relationships, feeling for the other person can tip over into a homicidal urge. I’ve stuck to the storyline, as I don’t like to distort the original text. I always go back to the source and try to find a connection in the plot between tradition and modernity.

Did you have a say in the design of the costumes?

I gave the costume designer, Anna Biagiotti, a great deal of freedom. She bombarded me with lots of ideas in a quick-fire exchange of emails and suggestions. With the gypsies, for example, we opted for very colourful garments recalling late 19th-century Moroccan costumes, which were appropriate to the story.

Coming back to the dance itself: many contemporary choreographers today push back the boundaries with productions that involve nonprofessionals, depart from a clear narrative framework and are abstract in nature. Do you have any preferred styles?

It depends a lot on the work in hand. For example, in Orpheus, I decided to use two actors who weren’t professional dancers and some musicians, while in Doctor Zhivago I went back to using pointe work, in a very classical way. In my opinion, subject and style should complement each other and make dramatic sense. I choose different methods according to what the work is about. For Metropolis, which we did in Zagreb, I used projections and multimedia, while for Kafka’s Trial I went for elements of dance-theatre. In this Carmen there will be a lot of dance, especially for the main character, who is always engaged in doing something on stage.

What are the qualities you look for in a dancer?

In addition to technique and versatility in switching between different styles, dancers must above all be able to embody the characters.

Which artist or experience has had the greatest influence on you?

When I was a child, I used to travel a lot with the circus that my parents – who were acrobats – belonged to. I remember those spaces, the air we used to breathe. My choreography bears the imprint, the memory of that breath, of the air that’s part of dance. And also a sense of humour that’s typical of circus performers.

What kind of a relationship do you have with your twin brother Otto?

It’s still very good, though in the last couple of years we haven’t been able to spend much time in each other’s company. But we still often work together. Otto did the stage designs for the Kafka ballet and for Rusalka. He’s very much drawn to stage design and to the visual aspect. He stopped dancing even before I did and then went on some specialised courses. To tell the truth, I no longer have any desire to appear on stage. I’ve been lucky as a choreographer and today I wouldn’t even be able to find the time to perform.

Does having been a dancer before becoming a choreographer make a difference?

As a dancer you work in front of a mirror, you observe yourself. You are focused on yourself, though you can be very generous when you’re on stage. As a choreographer, you have to give. You need to study, listen to music, meet people and talk to them. You spend more time thinking than doing. You need to imagine, seek inspiration. I think that if you’ve been a dancer yourself, you remember how hard the work of a dancer can be. It’s important never to forget that. When I’m working with the dancers of the Rome Opera, I know that they’ve just done a Swan Lake in which all their muscles are stretched to the utmost to enable them to extend their bodies and lift themselves up, and so I give them time to adapt to the more visceral movements and low contractions that are needed in Carmen. You have to show respect: without the dancers you are nothing, they are the ones who appear on stage and must attract the attention of the audience and conquer it. As the choreographer, all you can do is sit and watch. And be afraid.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, who committed self-immolation in protest at the crushing of the Prague Spring after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops in 1968. You were born after this, in 1974, but what do you remember of those years spent under the Communist regime?

At the time when my parents often travelled to the West with the circus, even as young boys my brother and I used to come into contact with life outside Czechoslovakia. It was only later, after we had begun to dance professionally, that we realised we would have little choice but to move abroad: there weren’t then many choreographers in Prague. I remember it as being a semideserted city. Then, in 1989, everything exploded. We were 16 and we went to demonstrations with our father. We were very happy, it was like breathing a new kind of air. With Václav Havel we went through some exciting times. We really started to hope for something extraordinary.

And what is there apart from dance?

Right now there’s my family. We’ve just had a second child, Blanka, following on from Honza who is now two years old. At the moment my life revolves around Toy Story! But as I’m now in Rome, I can’t miss out on a visit to the Vatican Museums.

 

Synopsis

Act I

In Prison
The writer and Don José are sitting at a table. The author is writing as José recounts his sad story. He offers Don José a cigar to smoke. He inhales, handing the writer a necklace with a silver coin to take to a relative. José is bound, but he stands to his feet and looks up – he is about to be hanged.

Gypsy Dance
Carmen is dancing with her group of Gypsy friends when she encounters the writer – Prosper Mérimée. They go for a walk together. They pause as she lights his cigar, and he lights hers. In the process, she steals his golden watch without him noticing.

In Front of the Cigar Factory
In front of the Cigar Factory in Seville, some of the soldiers are playing cards, while others sleep in the stifling heat. Don José is seated, sharpening his stick with a knife. Women from the cigar factory are returning to work. Carmen appears. All of the soldiers except for Don José are excited about the arrival of the women and the beautiful Carmen. She walks over to Don José and tosses a cassia flower in his face. He is enraptured and can no longer think of anyone but Carmen.

The Cigar Factory
The women are busy at work in the hot and noisy factory, there is dancing on the tables, workers busily cutting and rolling cigars. A fight breaks out and Carmen attacks one of the women. She slashes an ‘X’ into a woman’s face with her cigar knife. Three soldiers arrive to arrest Carmen, José is among them. They accompany Carmen to prison, but on the way she manages to persuade José to free her. He is then sent to prison.

Back in Prison
Don José is pensive. He is thinking of Carmen, gazing at the cassia flower, when he is interrupted by the voice of the guard announcing Carmen’s arrival. She has brought him a loaf of bread, which she baked with an iron file and a golden coin inside so that he can escape from prison. She implores him to escape but he refuses and stays.

The Lieutenant’s House Party
High society’s finest is all there, soldiers, actresses and the like. Don José is outside keeping guard. Carmen is on her way to the party with the Gypsy group. They keep the guests entertained and Carmen dances wildly. The sound of Flamenco fills the air! All the men are having fun, dancing with her. Don José is becoming jealous but he must keep watch outside. He finally realises that he loves Carmen and cannot be without her. As she leaves the Lieutenant’s house, she notices Don José and invites him to meet with her the next day.

Lillas Pastia’s House and Carmen and José
After completing his shift, Don José goes to Lillas Pastia’s to meet Carmen. The two set off on a walk together. He shows her the golden coin that she had taken to him in prison. She laughs and they buy food, alcohol and sweets. Carmen and José are alone. Carmen starts to dance; she is jovial, eating, drinking and enjoying the evening with Don José. She repeats over and over that she has repaid her loan – a gypsy law. They are interrupted by the sound of distant trembling beats that are calling the soldiers back to the quarters. Carmen doesn’t want Don José to go. She coaxes him to stay the night and they make love. In the morning, Carmen is the one to leave. He helped her avoid prison and this is how she repays him, by leaving him.

Streets
Don José searches restlessly but cannot find her anywhere. He misses her, he can’t live without her. Evening falls and the guards change shift… Don José is keeping guard again. Carmen approaches him and begs him to let a few smugglers pass to the city. Initially, he refuses but he later gives in. Carmen walks away but promises to visit him soon. The next time she comes around she is accompanied by another man – the Lieutenant. José becomes furious and the two men break into a fight. Don José kills the Lieutenant. Carmen and Don José flee the scene. Meanwhile, the author continues writing…

Act II

Forests and Mountains
Carmen and José become one, they are in sheer bliss. The smugglers arrive. Carmen introduces Dancaire, Remendado and the smuggler group to Don José. Carmen starts off ahead of the group – she is their spy. They rob three wealthy travellers, and all are happy. Carmen leaves the scene, while Don José and the group celebrates. Dancaire comes back with news that Carmen has freed her husband Garcia. Don José is introduced to Garcia, but he is in shock and hurt to discover that Carmen is married. Dancaire and Garcia are playing cards by the fire, Don José is sitting off to himself, Carmen is dancing alone. She saunters over to Don José kissing him and then leaves again.

Wealthy English General’s House
Don José is again searching for Carmen. He cannot find her. He dresses up as an orange vendor and goes to the Gibraltar harbour. After two long days on the street, she calls down to him from a window asking for oranges. He is called to go up. She is very richly dressed, covered in gold from head to toe, and living lighthearted with the English General and affluent society. Carmen and José have a moment alone. José can’t stand to see Carmen with so much gold on her and he becomes sad. They pretend to not know each other. She whispers to Don José when and how to rob the General. José returns to the group of robbers. The General tries to sleep with Carmen. Don José comes back with the smugglers and they rob the General. The troop is discovered by a single soldier, who immediately alerts the others. The soldiers hurry to the scene and attack the troop, many are killed and Remendado is injured. Don José tries to help him, but Garcia doesn’t want the injured Remendado to slow them down so he shoots him numerous times in the head. They all flee. Don José is incredulous, he cannot believe what he’s just seen – Garcia has killed Remendado. José angrily attacks Garcia, in turn murdering Carmen’s husband. Carmen and the injured Don José run away.

Carmen Takes Care of José
Carmen is taking care of the wounded Don José. He asks her to run away with him and start a new life. She refuses and yet again leaves him.

Bull Arena
We are introduced to the bull fighters and to Lucas. Carmen adores Lucas; she can’t stop flirting with him. A new interest, an exotic lover, all new feelings are aroused within her. José comes to the scene, he is devastated and jealous by what he sees. The horse takes Lucas down and he loses the bull fight. Lucas is injured and Carmen runs out to help him. Don José waits for Carmen all night until the early morning. She returns and he tells her to come away with him. They take a long trip far away on horseback. They arrive in an abandoned town with a small church and young priest. Don José pleads with her; he is on his knees begging her to leave the past behind and continue on with him. She refuses, saying she no longer loves him and throwing away her ring. He is furious and stabs her twice. He remains frozen in place, staring down at his beloved Carmen, motionless. When he recovers from the shock he picks up the ring and buries her nearby. Don José stands up on the table and hangs himself. Here, the writer closes his journal.

Jiří Bubeníček
English translations by Susannah Howe


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