Not Your Average “Carmen”: Tulsa Ballet’s World Premiere Hits the Stage This November

October 28, 2022

Carmen—the saucy, dramatic ballet packed with scandal and Spanish flair—gets a new look at Tulsa Ballet this November. With reworked costumes and brand-new choreography by Northern Ballet resident choreographer Kenneth Tindall, this iteration adds contemporary twists to its predecessor by Amedeo Amodio, last performed during the company’s 2001–02 season. The production runs November 4–6 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

While the most familiar versions, by Roland Petit (Carmen, 1949) and Alberto Alonso (Carmen Suite, 1967), generate visions of jutted hips and parallel battements (think Zizi Jeanmaire), Tindall’s version will be “almost a complete departure” choreographically: “You absolutely will see a Carmen that you expect to some degree, especially in the first act,” says Tindall. “But I think [this version] is more character-driven as we look at the psychology of why the characters act the way they do.”

Maine Kawashima and Jaimi Cullen rehearse a dramatic scene in a large ballet studio. Kawashima, in a red leotard with long mesh nude-colored sleeves, black shorts, a long light pink dance skirt and pointe shoes, grounds her feet and clenches her fists, staring intensely at Cullen. Cullen, in a long-sleeved red leotard, nude tights, a light pink dance skirt and pointe shoes, leans toward her with emotion, her arms raised behind her with her hands flexed, as if about to grab or strike Kawashima. Dancers sit, leaning over, on black chairs behind them.
From left: Maine Kawashima and Jaimi Cullen. Photo by Bethany Kirby, courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini had been observing Tindall’s work for years when he first asked him to create Carmen for the company in 2021. “Carmen is a story that needs to be told,” says Angelini. “It’s a story about how sometimes we objectify the subject of our love into something they are not, something we want them to be. Kenneth is a superb storyteller. I knew he was the right person for [this project].”

Reflecting on the story and its characters in the context of this production, Tindall views Carmen as a 21st-century woman. “What I really love about this ballet is in the 19th century, when it was written,” he says, “Carmen was one of the first anti-heroines—seen as this crazy, radical character. But she’d be commonplace now.”

The production will involve strategic alterations to the company’s preexisting costumes and sets from Amodio’s version, like removing the women’s shawls. “You can’t get away from the Spanish theme; it’s inherent in the story,” says Tindall. “But I absolutely want to get away from the community of [Roma people and historical stereotype].”

Tindall has also chosen to modernize the score, which in this production blends the original Bizet opera with Rodion Shchedrin’s suite adaptation, with orchestration by classically trained English film composer Alexandra Harwood.

Arman Zazyan, dressed in a black vest, black pants and black shoes, lunges forward as he lifts Jaimi Cullen, in a black dance top with sheer long sleeves and black shorts, in the air in front of him. Cullen rests on his left arm as his right wraps around her back, as her legs elongate behind her and her right arm reaches up to match their line. Her long dark hair is down, and they look at each other romantically.
Arman Zazyan and Jaimi Cullen. Photo by Josh New, courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

And in light of the ballet’s historically graphic ending, Tindall has decided to take a metaphorical approach, using stage effects and props to add his own interpretive twist. “I got to thinking about the fall of Don José and the male ego trying to contain this woman’s freedom,” he says. “It then becomes about the symbol of Carmen—killing the idea of her.” How this effect is achieved, says Tindall, is secret for now.

With six weeks allotted toward rehearsal time, the choreographic process has been demanding. “I’ve been incredibly impressed with how quick the dancers are,” says Tindall. “They’re sharpened tools, which is critical for a project like this.”

Yet despite the time crunch, Tindall is grateful for the opportunity to create new work. “It’s important for people to continually strive to have new choreographers and feed the next set of artists. The times we’ve seen art really flourish and progress, like in the Renaissance, is when it’s under pressure. So if we stay courageous and keep commissioning new work, we’re in for a really exciting time.”