Besides “superb,” the words “fantastic,” “amazing” and “breathtaking” all come to mind as apt superlatives for the latest bill at Ballet San Jose. Executive director Dennis Nahat’s most recent production, which ran over the weekend, was as pleasing and satisfying as it was thrilling and exciting, pairing George Balanchine’s swinging Who Cares? with Roland Petit’s masterful interpretation of Carmen.
Who Cares? (first performed in 1970) sets lilting, jazzy moves to 16 familiar George Gershwin songs. The first one, “Strike Up the Band,” gives 20 company members the chance to strut and sway to the perky rhythms, having fun with hip moves and taplike footwork. The piece then moves into a series of smaller ensemble numbers, including solos and pas de deux. The dancers clearly enjoy themselves and do excellent work with the modernized vocabulary. Standouts include Cynthia Sheppard and Shuai Chen in “Do Do Do,” and Shannon Bynum and Rudy Candia in “Lady Be Good.”
Karen Gabay, Amy Marie Briones and Junna Ige all partner with Maykel Solas in the next groupings, dealing with unusual and challenging lifts, and they have solos as well. Gabay’s technique is exquisite—she floats like a feather; and Briones excels in her form. Solas’ solo didn’t seem challenging enough for him until he got to a brilliant combination of turns. The finale of “I Got Rhythm” for the entire ensemble was suitably energetic and sprightly, reprising the jazz vernacular seen throughout.
Carmen premiered in 1949 but feels surprisingly fresh and original even today. Petit’s staging and choreography have been repeated the world over, but Ballet San Jose gives the piece its own panache, with fabulous costumes and sets and spectacular dancing. Petit turns the well-known saga of the tragic tobacco-factory femme fatale into a series of short scenes that are more suggestive than literal, creating a surreal, Bohemian effect—like an abstract painting rather than a realistic representation.
The title role made Petit’s wife famous, but she couldn’t have done it any better than Alexsandra Meijer, who gives an indelible, haunting performance, stunning in her interpretation, with impeccable technique. Sometimes vamp, sometimes girlish, both tough and vulnerable, she garners our sympathy while executing breathtaking moves.
Meijer is well-matched with Jeremy Kovitch as Don José, the hapless captain who falls prey to Carmen’s charms. Kovitch looks terrific and is also compelling to watch, from subtle gestures to strength moves. The final pas de deux, set only to an insistent drum beat, is truly inspired, a splendid demonstration of dance wedded to story, performed by two fine artists. Other standouts included Ramon Moreno, Amy Marie Briones and Akira Takahashi as Carmen’s cronies, providing comic counterpoint.
The playbill tells us that Ballet San Jose is one of the few companies given permission to stage this master work. We can see why in this soaring, beautiful production, and only wish they would grant us all the joy of seeing it more often.