Jihyun Choi in Lopez Ochoa's Broken Wings // © Reneff-Olson Productions
Sasha De Sola in Smith's Carmen // © Reneff-Olson Productions

Dos Mujeres

San Francisco Ballet

Written by:
Toba Singer
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In the ongoing conversations about choreography that I shared with Fernando Alonso, architect of the Cuban ballet training system, he would return to two themes: music and stimulating the imagination. These, he said, had to be supported and enabled through access to, and informed respect for classical ratios in art forms, even and especially when you are interrogating them. In Alonso’s view, the specter of mediocrity is ever-present, and whoever creates work must resist any tendency in its direction, or fail as an artist.

In its conceptualization, San Francisco Ballet’s Dos Mujeres program challenges British-Cuban choreographer Arielle Smith’s “Carmen” on three fronts. Firstly, there are more than “dos mujeres” involved. There are two who are protagonists in each choreographer’s piece, Carmen in “Carmen,” and Frida Kahlo in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Broken Wings.” Then there are two women choreographers: Smith and López Ochoa. Support for women choreographers arrives packaged this way on the spurious basis that one program featuring works by two women choreographers happens so rarely that such a coincidence justifies elevating it to a theme. The darker and less sanguine side of such a confabulation is that it invites an inevitable comparison of works about two cult figures by two women choreographers, one much younger and less experienced than the other. Second, Smith, a Londoner, summered in Havana, studying ballet with Laura Alonso, and was the recipient of an Olivier Award. Her grandparents ran a restaurant in Havana across from the National Ballet studios. Perhaps these credentials contributed to her feeling entitled or even obliged to create a new version of “Carmen,” the signature dance work of Fernando’s brother, Cuban National Ballet’s founding member and resident choreographer Alberto Alonso. Alonso’s Carmen, based on the opera libretto and its Bizet score, was set on Alicia Alonso and Russian étoile Maya Plisetskaya. It is considered by many in the ballet world to constitute the standard. Alonso’s is the historic Carmen about the gypsy, tobacco roller, who refuses to submit to the authoritarian Royal Crown regime that imprisons her. Though there is, as with many of us, seduction and sexuality in her makeup, the story is not about love or sex. It is about courage, bravery, and a willingness to die for the dignity of your social class when it is under attack. Smith is of the belief that Alonso’s opera-based story of Carmen diminishes her as a victim and seductress and that Carmen needed a new and better narrative that embraced gender fluidity as its primary theme. Enter Carmen, restaurant heiress, married to Jose who falls in love with Escamilla (in place of the male Escamillo in the original.) Escamilla is an impetuous woman who comes to work in the restaurant.

Smith dispensed with the Bizet score and commissioned Cuban-Mexican jazz pianist Arturo O’Farrill to write a new one, with the safety-valve proviso that it has enough of a Bizet thread built into it to give a nod in the direction of the original composer. Herein lies the second challenge. The score waxes so rich and imaginative in its Cubanía, and draws on so much of the tonal and compositional memory of O’Farrill, that it unwittingly upstages both the mostly ho-hum choreography that would not survive a torrential Cuban downpour. 

The third challenge results from changing Carmen, a gypsy tobacco factory worker, an identity tied to the class history of a key era in world history, to the owner of a corner restaurant. She becomes a random, powerless, lost soul with no tangible historical connection. Except for the bartender in “Fancy Free,” can we name a more mediocre character in ballet who leans on a bar? The decision to deprive Carmen of the class allegiance that straightens her spine in the Alonso version crosses the Alonso mediocrity line in the sand. Was Smith’s just a naïve, overexuberant gaffe or was it a misjudgment borne of youthful hubris? Here’s how it can look to an audience steeped in Carmenía: Smith sold the historical Carmen for what she sees as a twenty-something’s more sexually correct idea of a family scrapbook. She could have changed the title from “Carmen” to “Arielle,” but then she would have faced a fourth challenge: “Who would come to see it?”

The dancers put more than they were given to work with into their roles, especially Joseph Walsh as Jose, Carmen’s husband; Wei Wang, as Gilberto, Carmen’s Father; and Maggie Weirich, as the job applicant Soraya, who danced with fervor on the restaurant’s bar, like it was going out of style, the most authentically all-too-brief Cubanía moment in the work.

“Broken Wings” offered heartfelt stanzas danced with both beat-by-beat endurance and fleet-footed sensibility by Isabella DeVivo. She is a splendid asset as a small dancer with a grand stage presence and purchase. Coming on the heels of Carmen, Broken Wings helped me see the near-impossibility of building a ballet around a figure in art or history who has amassed a cult following. Frida Kahlo, half-Mexcan and half-German, was a painter, and a non-conformist, as many artists tend to be. When she was struck by a bus and forced to live a life of relative confinement for long periods, she lost even more of the freedom she thrived on as a free spirit.

She too, is someone who finds her depth in the politics of her time, and her alliance with Diego Rivera is at least as much sustained by their shared political beliefs as their romantic attachment is sustained by mutual attraction, maybe more so. She has a love affair with Leon Trotsky, who led the Russian Revolution of 1917 as Commander of the Red Army. He is living in Mexico while in exile from the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union that eventually has him assassinated there. Somehow, that essential part of her story escapes the notice of screenwriters, playwrights, and again here, a choreographer. Instead, the emphasis is on Frida’s quirks, the affectations that have been superimposed on her by those who need her to be as unconventional as they wish they were when in actuality, they follow the sacred convention of sanitizing the story of her communist political leanings. With the addition of Frida’s affinity with Trotsky and paring the piece down to the two essentials in Kahlo’s profile, echoed in Chavela Vargas imploring “Llorona,” her painting, with its ineffable instinct for composition and color, and her political passion and striving for an uncluttered life, the dancers have more than enough to work with, and so does the audience. Happily, thanks to DeVivo, there is enough substance that is natural and uncult-like, that we see what I saw when I visited the Kahlo House in Coyoacán: a sturdy simplicity, bold color, a home—not large—but big enough to hold the artist’s sadness, the vagaries of her creative life, and the political convictions that left plenty of room for the stimulating company of Trotsky, Rivera, and the many vivid souls who visited from Mexico and abroad.

Toba Singer

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