The Australian Ballet

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A Taste for Spain

Carmen01 Drew Hedditch

Principal Artist Jill Ogai, Jade Wood and artists of The Australian Ballet in rehearsal for Carmen (Inger) 2024
Photo Drew Hedditch

Classical ballet has had a long love affair with traditional Spanish dance.

Marius Petipa

In 1844, when he was a young man, dancer, choreographer and renowned ballet master, Marius Petipa was engaged as premier danseur by Madrid’s Teatro del Circo. He was a hit, and stayed for some years, touring Andalusia and immersing himself in the Spanish customs and culture. He adored the “free, open-hearted display of passion which is characteristic of all Spanish dances”.

Evidently the passion rubbed off: he fell in love with a young noblewoman called Carmen; refused to be paid off by her disapproving family; fought a duel with her father, shattering his jaw; and, three years later, eloped with her to France. The couple were discovered by the police, still unmarried, and poor Carmen was arrested and returned to her family in Spain.

We can only speculate about her subsequent life of shame and punishment, but there were good times ahead for Petipa. He took a position with the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg and stayed there for the rest of his working life, creating ballets that we’re still watching today.

2299619 TAB Don Quixote Nureyev Aya Watanabe Cameron Holmes Credit Rainee Lantry 2 1

Cameron Holmes and Aya Watanabe, Don Quixote (Nureyev) 2023
Photo Rainee Lantry

Petipa was a strong character dancer, and well placed to satisfy his audience’s appetite for glimpses of exotic, faraway places in the divertissements he embedded in his ballets.

Hungarian, Scottish, Neopolitan, Arabian: they all make appearances in his divertissements, but the constant is a Spanish dance, which appears in Swan Lake, Paquita, his reworking of Coppélia, and The Nutcracker (choreographed by Lev Ivanov, but from Petipa’s scheme)

Petipa also choreographed an entire ballet, Don Quixote, set in Barcelona.
While the style is undoubtedly classical, it has a Spanish accent: the dancers stamp, clap, flourish their fingers and throw their arms in the air.
Even the way Kitri flicks open her fan at the start of her Act III solo – sharply, right on the beat – echoes the attack of flamenco.

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Principal Artist Jill Ogai, Don Quixote (Nureyev) 2023
Photo Christopher Rodgers-Wilson

Don Quixote also has a fairly traditional fandango, with the dancers barely touching each other, their hands low to their hips, lunging on bent legs. It’s built on a classical scaffolding, but it retains plenty of the flavour of the “famous fandango” that entranced Petipa at a festival in Spain:

“I wore a Spanish costume, I felt just like a Spaniard, and audaciously invited an attractive Spanish woman to dance; and together with three other couples we tempestuously, madly did this characteristic Spanish dance.”

Serge Diaghilev and Léonide Massine commission Pablo Picasso

When Serge Diaghilev commissioned Le Tricorne (The Three-Cornered Hat) for the Ballets Russes in 1919, he and his choreographer Léonide Massine went to great lengths to give their ballet authenticity. They chose music by the Spanish composer Manuel de Faila; they based the story on a Spanish novel; they commissioned a Spanish artist – one Pablo Picasso – to create the décor.

They also toured Spain together, attending dance performances and soaking up the character of the national dances. In Seville, they saw a performance by a young flamenco artist, Félix Fernández García, and were so impressed they hired him to teach his virtuoso moves to Massine. Félix came to a sad end – he began behaving erratically in England, and was committed to an asylum – but Massine spoke fondly of him for the rest of his life, and credited him in the success of Le Tricorne.

Carmen 1973

Rudy Bryans and Lucette Aldous, Carmen (Petit) 1973
Photo Gregory Weight

Roland Petit and Alonso Alberto

Later in the 20th-century, the story of Carmen and the glamour of Spain worked its spell on two choreographers, Roland Petit and Alonso Alberto. Alonso was Cuban, but his 1967 Carmen, commissioned by the Bolshoi star Maya Plisetskaya, had a distinctly Soviet flavour, with an off-beat interpretation of Bizet’s music by Plissetskaya’s husband Rodion Shchedrin.

The one-act ballet takes place in an arena, overlooked by watchers in tall chairs, with movement in the muscular, emphatic style of the mid-century drambalet.

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Principal Artists Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli, Carmen (Inger) 2024
Photo Simon Eeles

Petit’s 1949 ballet, starring his wife Zizi Jeanmaire, was also inflected with the spirit of its time – Jeanmaire played Carmen in a feathered pixie cut and a sort of French-maid leotard, and the choreography is a blend of classical, Spanish and sudden contemporary moves that almost evoke mime. However, the ballerina Margot Fonteyn called it a “fiery and sensuous Carmen that was markedly more powerful than the nineteenth-century ballet pastiches flavoured with Spain like vanilla in a cake.”

Ultimately, it’s a tribute to the strength and allure of Spanish dance. Even filtered through a Western lens, it keeps its own character, and continues to entrance us.

Carmen plays this April at the Sydney Opera House