The Spitfire of Seville

The story of a woman far before her time

Dancers Leoannis Pupo-Guillen and Jennifer Martin in EBC’s 2007 Carmen. Photograph by Cliff Coles.
Dancers Leoannis Pupo-Guillen and Jennifer Martin in EBC’s 2007 Carmen. Photograph by Cliff Coles.

In its initial release, George Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen received mixed reviews. Today, in its 140th anniversary year, many see Carmen, the story of a woman far before her time, as a feminist text.

“I certainly think that when you read the newspapers, you just see the same sort of continuous problem between men and women,” says Toni Pimble, artistic director for Eugene Ballet Company. “There are those men that just feel that they have to own a woman, and that’s the whole essence of Carmen — that she is a free spirit, that she does not want to be owned, that she believes in her freedom to choose her lover and to discard lovers.”

Eugene Ballet Company will perform Carmen just in time for Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14 and 15 at the Hult Center.

For strangers to the original spitfire femme fatale, Carmen is set in early 19th-century Spain, telling the tragedy of its namesake, who seduces the gullible soldier Don José. He gives up his childhood sweetheart and job for her, only to find that she has fallen in love with Escamillo, a matador. The show climaxes in a fury of passion and jealousy that is illustrated best by Bizet’s poignant score.

“There is a very sexual contract to the ballet,” Pimble says.

Danielle Tolmie and Mark Tucker, engaged to be married themselves, dance the roles of Carmen and Don José and agree that this is still an envelope-pushing piece.

“She just lived and had fun and didn’t care what people thought of her,” Tolmie says. “She’s very much ahead of her time.”

“It’s a dark story, but it is not just about the pretty, classical ballet,” Tucker adds. “It is all about a much more human, relatable story.”

Bizet’s opera has inspired thousands of performances — the Metropolitan Opera alone has done more than 1,000 — and adaptations, including everything from the Carmen Suite, a 13-dance, one-act ballet by composer Rodion Shchedrin, to Carmen: A Hip Hopera (the 2001 made-for-TV movie starring Beyoncé).

Pimble, however, has opted to do something nobody has ever done before.

She’s woven all the music together to create a mosaicked four-act ballet, taking Bizet’s opera with music from Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite and fleshing it all out with additional music from Bizet and Massenet, another 19th-century French composer. Pimble says Carmen is the only show in the season that will not feature live music.

“I didn’t feel that I could tell it [with] justice as a suite,” Pimble says.

The ballet features Spanish-style dance mixed with contemporary classical ballet and lots of acting without dialogue.

“Acting is just as important as the technique, which is rare,” Tolmie says. “It is a very sensual ballet, and you can’t really hold anything back or it looks fake. So it’s been a challenge for sure, but it’s been really fun as well.”

Eugene Ballet Company performs Carmen 7:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 14, and 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 15, at the Hult Center; $28-53.