Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Carmen lives! Dada Masilo’s groundbreaking dance adaptation of Bizet’s opera

Dada Masilo as Carmen, photo John Hogg.
Lateral floodlight on a female dancer dressed in red. She curls her hands and arms, bending her torso into a deep cambré. She stands on the left while José hugs Carmen in the centre. The dancer also holds a piece of paper in one of her hands. No, it is not a piece of paper. It is a card, the death card that in Georges Bizet’s Carmen signals the fate of both Carmen and José, “Diamonds! Spade! It’s death!” exclaims Carmen in Act III, scene 2, as she turns up her cards. It is a beautiful scene, intimate and intense, and it soon develops into a group dance with other dancers holding other death cards. It is performed mid-way through Dada Masilo’s Carmen, a choreography filled with exuberance, style and sparkling dance pieces, spiced up by a revolutionary ending.

As is known, Carmen is a Spanish Gypsy working in a tobacco factory in Seville. She meets the Navarrese soldier José and seduces him. He, on his part, falls in love with her and leaves his job to join her group of Gypsy smugglers. However, he  tends to be possessive with Carmen, while she is a free spirit and soon falls in love with another man, making José even more jealous. She is his Gypsy wife and is loyal to the rules of her community. That is why, when it comes to choosing between José and her death, she chooses death.

The myth of Carmen was born with Prosper Mérimeé’s novella, first published in 1845 and then, with the added fourth chapter, in 1847. Chapter three of Mérimée’s work was then chosen by Bizet and his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, to stage an opéra-comique, which was a type of opera that had spoken dialogues and music, and was intended to be “for a family-oriented bourgeoisie” (Susan McClary, 1992: 15).

The essential innovation introduced by Bizet concerns not just the music, but also his attitude towards the subject matter. The choice of Mérimée’s novella was quite daring and it caused him many problems with the directors of the Opéra-Comique (when written in capital letters, it refers to the actual theatre in Paris), Camille Du Locle and Adolphe de Leuven, as well as with his collaborators. Even though both exotic themes and the femme fatale thrope were very popular at the time (McClary, 1992: 17-18), there was always a male hero at the centre of plots, while, in this instance, there was a female heroine set outside “the law and morality” (Martin Cooper, 1982: 15), who is murdered by her lover. For this reason, it was particularly difficult to find a mezzo soprano for the title role as some refused to perform it precisely because the heroine died in the end (Mina Curtiss, 1959: 355). Nevertheless, when Célestine Galli-Marié accepted, “she became Bizet’s staunchest ally in the production” (McClary, 1992: 24) and even collaborated with him “in the composition of the Habañera” (McClary, 1992: 24), Carmen’s famous aria. Moreover, to counterbalance Carmen’s unorthodox figure and José’s dramatic personality, new characters, like pious Micaela and glamorous Escamillo, were introduced.

The opera [1] is divided into four acts each of which has a different setting. Here is a table to analyse its main actions and songs.

Acts and settings
Main actions and songs
(Tobacco factory, Seville)
Carmen meets brigadier José (Habañera)
José and Micaela
Fight between Carmen and Manuelita, another of the cigarette girls
José arrests Carmen
Carmen convinces him to let her go
(Lillas Pastia’s tavern)
Carmen dances and sings together with the other Gyspises (Gyspy Song)
Escamillo arrives (Toreador Song)
Carmen dances for José
José declares his love for her (Flower Song)
José joins the Gypsies and abandons his role as soldier
(Rocky landscape)
Gypsies ready for their illegal business
Carmen reads the cards and a death omen appears
Escamillo engages in a duel with José but does not kill him
Micaela arrives telling José of his dying mother
José leaves
(Outside the bullfight arena)
Crowd outside the arena (Toreador Theme)
Carmen is now in love with Escamillo
Carmen remains alone with José who has returned to get her back
José stabs her and she dies

Over the decades, Carmen has inspired innumerable dance adaptations. Among the most notable examples, there are those choreographed by Roland Petit (1949), Alberto Alonso (1967), Antonio Gades (1983) and Mats Ek (1992). Apart from Gades’s version, “these adaptations are all excellent in terms of choreography invention, narrative articulation, technique execution and role interpretation. They all provide fundamental insights into the figure of the Spanish Gypsy. However, they do not question the figure of Carmen as a cultural construction and as a femme fatale. In this sense, Antonio Gades’ adaptation stands out” (Rosella Simonari, 2006) [2]. Similarly, as we shall see, Masilo’s Carmen questions one of the substantial outcomes of the story, her death, thus radically subverting the Carmen myth.

Dada Masilo is a thirty years-old choreographer and dancer from South Africa, famous for her reworking of the classics. Before Carmen, she reached international fame with her Swan Lake, where she mixed ballet and African dance and twisted the plot with homosexual tinges. Masilo’s Carmen is a stylish dance adaptation that follows the narrative and adds its own peculiar flavour as in the above-mentioned card scene. It is set to Rodion Shchedrin’s own instrumental adaptation of Bizet’s music with the addition of Arvo Pärt’s music from Lamentate. Shchedrin’s music had been composed for another dance adaptation, Carmen Suite, choreographed by Alberto Alonso and was used by Ek in his own adaptation. Therefore, to build her own Carmen, Masilo’s choice created a refined juxtaposition of different versions. The costumes were created by Masilo and Suzette Le Sueur, director as well of The Dance Factory Company who dances with Masilo, and were made by Ann Bailes and Kobus O’Callaghan. The lights were designed by Le Sueur who has also produced the piece with the Company together with Interarts Lausanne/Chantal et Jean-Luc Larguier. Here is a video with some scenes from the piece:

Masilo has repeatedly admitted her interest in narrative, “I like telling stories, you know, I do not like being just a body moving in space” (Masilo, 2010?) [3] and she marvellously plays with it, using only her dancers, as no props are present in her Carmen. In particular, her dance approach reveals a search for fusion between usually quite distant dance languages, like ballet and African dance, “it’s not a happy marriage” but she likes what is not “predictable” (Masilo, 2010?). Furthermore, with Carmen, she also took flamenco classes and used it in her way (Masilo, 2015). For example, she does not wear flamenco shoes, and dances barefoot. Therefore, her zapateado (the feet stamping) becomes less percussive and softer, and her braceo (arm movement), instead, is quite firm in the way she cuts the air with her arms. This fusion creates an exuberant and energetic style, which, quite often, is performed at a high pace. Here are the main actions of her Carmen [4]:

Main actions
Carmen solo + José
Group work
Carmen and José
José and Micaela duet (Prelude to Act III)
Carmen, Manuelita and José
Carmen (Habañera) + two men
Carmen and José
José solo
Micaela + group of men
Group work + fight between Carmen and Manuelita (Gypsy Song)
Carmen + one man (Fate theme), José
Group work
Carmen dances for José
Card dance, solo then group work
José and Micaela
Fight between Carmen and José
Escamillo solo
Carmen and Escamillo + José
José rapes Carmen
Duel between Escamillo and José (Stridendo from Lamentate by Arvo Pärt)
Escamillo kills José
Ends with Carmen on the left and Micaela on the right and group with Escamillo at the back

The opening scene presents Masilo moving her pelvis off-axis. This recurs in her dancing and takes a particularly ironic tone in her version of Swan Lake where the dancers' short white tutus highlight their movements in undulating and almost vibrating shapes. Her shaved head is adorned by a red flower, and her body is dressed with a red dress made of a tight bustier-like top and a wide just-below-the-knee skirt. Masilo herself stated, “in terms of costumes, I didn’t want to use the conventional Spanish dance costumes, as they are a bit too heavy, especially for floor work. But I definitely wanted the flow and movement in the costumes – and the roses on the heads (even though I do not have hair!)” (Dada Masilo, “About Carmen”, 2015). The fabric is shiny and recalls Mats Ek’s costumes for his Carmen and, interestingly, Ek’s Carmen was a true inspiration for her (Masilo, “About Carmen”, 2015). Her shaved head already presents a bold and unique Carmen, as dark, long hair is a typical seductive tool and recurs in many Carmen adaptations, like Gades’s and Ek’s. As has been said, she has no shoes on, like all the other female dancers and unlike the men, who all wear dark-coloured shoes.
Carmen and José, photo John Hogg.
The narrative loosely follows Bizet’s, but more often than not she mixes things up, especially with the music. For example, Bizet’s Prelude to Act III is used in Carmen Suite for José’s solo after Carmen has left him, and is used by Masilo for the romantic duet between José and Micaela, who emerges as a more assertive woman than her operatic counterpart. The Gypsy Song, which is not included in Carmen Suite, stages a frantic group dance and the fight between Carmen and Manuelita.

The group phrases are beautifully arranged, with a special eye for energy and patterns like the above mentioned Gypsy Song phrase, during which men stand at the centre with Escamillo and move in pirouettes in one direction, while a group of women surrounds them walking in the opposite direction.

According to Masilo, Carmen is “a layered character (…), she is seductive, passionate, manipulative, sexy” (Masilo, Dada Masilo Carmen REF14, 2015) and that is what attracted her. In addition to this, her Carmen was always going to be a contemporary figure because she feels she has to relate to women and girls of her time, and because she lives in her time, she lives in the twentieth-first century (Masilo, Dada Masilo Carmen REF14, 2015).
Coming to the end, she affirms that she wanted to do something different. And, after the pyrotechnical effusion of movements, this comes as yet another big surprise filled with pathos and suspense. Carmen is hugging Escamillo, when José comes in with his white shirt almost all open and separates them. She does not like his behaviour and has a fight with him. At this point, he brutally rapes her and the audience is left with the doubt on whether she is dead or alive. Were she dead, this would be a very interesting plot development as it would more directly tie José’s possessiveness to violence and, in general, to violence against women. However, Carmen is not dead. The group arrives and Escamillo makes his entrance with his cape and airborne movement quality. He starts a duel with José, a duel which recalls the bullfight in some gestures and also some other famous duels in dance history, like the one staged by Antonio Gades at the end of Bodas de Sangre. In the end, Escamillo kills José, thus changing the plot radically. Carmen lives, José dies!

Masilo has noted how society is not focusing enough attention on rape and violence against women, “it is really important for this world to zoom in on this issue and say enough” (Masilo, Dada Masilo Carmen REF14, 2015). It is not a question of shaming men, but of “the decision that we make” (Masilo, Dada Masilo Carmen REF14, 2015). On the one hand, the fact that it is Escamillo, another man, who kills José might weaken Carmen’s charisma, but, on the other hand, it shows precisely that not all men are rapists, not all men are violent. There are many who are not, there are many who fight against violent men, as Escamillo does with José.

The attention shifts from Carmen as the protagonist of her self-immolation in the name of freedom, to her two lovers and their rivalry. Masilo's choice seems to be saying that violence against women is not just a woman’s question, men have to address the problem as well, interrogate their behavior and come to terms with the idea of possession.

Escamillo, photo Christian Ganet.
This groundbreaking ending changes everything. The Carmen myth is profoundly shaped by her death in the end, because that shows her incommensurable desire for freedom and independence. As José’s romi (Gypsy wife), she is inevitably tied to him, death is the only way for her to become free again. If Carmen survives and José dies, what are the implications? Does it mean she emerges as less independent? Does it mean that she is going to be with Escamillo? Or does it simply mean that she is more human than we thought, that she can receive help from other people and that her charisma will continue to endure also thanks to, not in spite of this?



[1] To analyse and describe the opera I consulted various video versions. In particular, I refer to Carmen, dir. Barry Gavin (1991). I also consulted the filmed version Carmen, dir. Francesco Rosi (1984).
[2] On Gades’s Carmen see also my 2008 essay.
[3] I believe the date placed on this video to be erroneous, as in 2010 Masilo had not yet created Carmen.
[4] To analyse and describe the choreography, I refer to the live performance I saw in Rome on 2 November, 2014 and on the above linked You Tube sequence.



Martin Cooper, “Opéra-Comique”, in Carmen – Bizet, Nicholas John edited by (London: John Calder, 1982), pp. 9-18.

Mina Curtiss, Bizet and His World (London: Secker and Warburg, 1959).

Susan McClary, edited by, Georges Bizet: Carmen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Dada Masilo, “About Carmen”, Dance Inversion Festival – International Contemporary Dance Festival (Moscow: Bolshoi Theatre, 2015) (Last accessed on 3 January 2016).

Rosella Simonari, “Dancing Carmen, Dancing Freedom: Antonio Gades’s Dance Adaptation in the Light of a Long and Enduring Genealogy”,, June 2006, (Last accessed on 3 January 2016).

Rosella Simonari, “Bringing Carmen Back to Spain: Antonio Gades’s Flamenco Dance in Carlos Saura’s Choereofilm”, Dance Research, vol. 26, n. 2, Winter 2008, pp. 189-203.

Choreography (chronologically arranged)

Carmen, chor. Roland Petit, music Georges Bizet arranged and orchestrated by André Girard, set and costumes Antoni Clavé, feat. Roland Petit, Zizi Jeanmarie and Les Ballets de Paris (London: Prince Theatre, 21 February, 1949).

Carmen Suite, chor. Alberto Alonso, music Georges Bizet re-scored by Rodion Shchedrin, set Boris Messerer, costumes Salvador Fernández, feat. Maya Plisetskaya, Nicolai Fadeyechev, Sergei Radchenko (Moscow: Bolshoi Theatre, 20 April, 1967).

Carmen, chor. Antonio Gades, music Georges Bizet, flamenco, popular music, set Antonio Gades, Antonio Saura, lighting Antonio Gades, Carlos Saura, feat. Antonio Gades, Cristina Hoyos, Compañía Antonio Gades (Paris: Théatre de Paris, 17 May 1983).

Carmen, chor. Mats Ek, music Georges Bizet re-scored by Rodion Shchedrin, set Marie-Louise Ekman, costumes Jörgen Hansoon, feat. Ana Laguna and The Cullberg Ballet (Stockholm: Dansens Hus, 13 May 1992).

Carmen, chor. Dada Masilo, music Georges Bizet, Rodion Shchedrin, Arvo Pärt, costumes Dada Masilo, Suzette Le Sueur, Ann Bailes, Kobus O’Callaghan, lighting Suzette Le Sueur, feat. Dada Masilo and The Dance Factory Company (Lyon: Biennale de Danse de Lyon, September 2014).

Carmen, chor. Dada Masilo, music Georges Bizet, Rodion Shchedrin, Arvo Pärt, costumes Dada Masilo, Suzette Le Sueur, Ann Bailes, Kobus O’Callaghan, lighting Suzette Le Sueur, feat. Dada Masilo and The Dance Factory Company, Romaeuropa Festival (Rome: Teatro Brancaccio, 2 November 2014).

Carmen, music Georges Bizet, libretto Henri Meilhac, Ludovic Halévy, based on Prosper Mèrimée’s novella, feat. Cèlestine Galli-Marié, Paul Lhérie, Jacques Bouhy, (Paris: Opéra-Comique, 3 March 1875)

Videography and Filmography

Bodas de sangre, dir. Carlos Saura, chor. Antonio Gades, feat. Antonio Gades, Cristina Hoyos (Emiliano Piedra, 1981).

Carmen, dir. Barry Gavin, conductor Zubin Mehta, feat. Maria Ewing, Luis Lima (BBC TV/Royal Opera House/RM Arts, 1991).

Carmen, dir. Francesco Rosi, music Georges Bizet, feat. Julia Migenes-Johnson, Placido Domingo (Gaumont, 1984).

Carmen, dir. Carlos Saura, chor. Antonio Gades, feat. Antonio Gades, Laura del Sol, Cristina Hoyos (Emiliano Piedra, 1983).

Carmen Suite, dir. Not specified, chor. Alberto Alonso, music Georges Bizet re-scored by Rodion Shchedrin, set Boris Messerer, costumes Salvador Fernández, feat. Svetlana Zakharova (Moscow: Bolshoi Theatre), available here (Last accessed on 6 January 2016).

Dada Masilo Carmen REF14, interview (Rome: Romaeuropa Festival, 16 January 2015), available here, (Last accessed on 5 January 2016).

Dada Masilo: South African dancer who breaks the rules, interview by Robyn Curnow (CNN, 2 November 2010?), available here (Last accessed on 3 January 2016).

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