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Since its inception in 1845, Carmen has inspired countless adaptations. From the iconic opera by Georges Bizet to cartoons and burlesque, Carmen permeates genres. Each retelling retains elements of the iconic tale, but also adapts it to find new perspectives and narratives.

This season, English National Ballet performs Johan Inger’s Carmen – a contemporary take on this timeless story. Here are five reasons why you won’t want to miss it!

The story is told through a different lens

In this version of Carmen, choreographer Johan Inger focuses on the dark undercurrents of the original story, and particularly Don José’s growing obsession with the titular character.

The ballet features recognisable scenes and characters from the story – Carmen’s seduction of Don José, the fight in the tobacco factory, the Toreador, amongst others – but it also delves into the mind of Don José, highlighting  his inner turmoil and bringing the brutality that is at the heart of the story to the fore.

Inger took inspiration from Prosper Mérimée’s original novella, which is written from the point of view of Don José, who is telling his story from prison ahead of his scheduled execution.

Video: Compañia Nacional de Danza, Spain’s Kayoko Everhart and Alessandro Riga in Johan Inger's Carmen

The ballet features some unusual additions

The first character we encounter in this production is a young child.

The child appears throughout, and their identity remains a mystery – they could represent any of the main protagonists in their youth, or perhaps us, the audience. In a dream sequence, they also dance with Carmen and Don José, as a happy family. Dressed in white, playing with a ball, they could also represent innocence – until their encounter with darkness. A witness to all the violence around them, how will they break that cycle?

Inger’s ballet also features what could be described as shadows – dancers dressed head to toe in black that act as a chorus around the main performers. They may be symbols of violence, or demons in Don José’s head – bringing darkness with them.

A modern movement style for a modern take

Following the 1949 premiere of Roland Petit’s ballet Carmen, the title became a staple of dance companies far and wide. The original ballet, featuring legendary dancer Zizi Jeanmaire, became an instant classic. Jeanmaire sported a tight corset with no tutu, short hair, and a pair of pointe shoes – a cutting-edge modern look for mid-century Britain.

Seven decades later, Johan Inger’s Carmen surprises again. In this version, the dancers perform a modern movement vocabulary and wear no pointe shoes matching the contemporary feel of the production.

National-Dance-Company-of-Spain's-production-of-Carmen-(c)-Ariel-Cecilio-Lemus (2)
Compañia Nacional de Danza in Johan Inger's Carmen

It’s Bizet’s music, but not as you know it

Unlike many other famous retellings, Inger’s Carmen is not set to Bizet’s score. Instead, Rodion Shchedrin’s 1967 arrangement for strings and percussion serves as the musical backbone of the performance.

This version, which will be performed live by English National Ballet Philharmonic, uses percussion in dramatic and clever ways to enhance and accompany the well-known tunes – listen out for tambourines, castanets, bongos, maracas, xylophones, tubular bells and much more.

Between the movements of the Shchedrin Suite, heavier sound sequences can also be heard. Composed by Marc Alvarez for this production, these take us deeper into the characters’ tumultuous emotions.

The story does not take place in Spain

Even though Johan Inger was heavily inspired by the original novella, this version of Carmen isn’t set specifically in Spain.

The minimalistic set design and striking costumes avoid regional aesthetics. The stage is adorned with nine mirroring prisms, framing the action and transporting us from a town square to the insides of a troubled mind. The soldiers do not wear military attire, and the matador resembles a rock star.

The set and costume designers, working closely with Johan Inger, created the perfect setting for this new, modern retelling of Carmen – a timeless, dangerous tale about seduction and obsession.

Experience Johan Inger’s fresh take on this classic tale at Sadler’s Wells, 27 March 6 April. Book your Carmen tickets .