Photo: Nancy Reyes

Carmen, the rebellious character in the novel Prosper Merimée, has inspired musicians, dramaturges, filmmakers, and choreographers alike, who have created innumerable versions. One of these is our topic today, the ballet Carmen Suite by Cuban Alberto Alonso (1917-2007).

This choreography with music from the great opera of George Bizet, arranged by Russian Rodion Schedrin, has reached its 50th anniversary this year, and the National Ballet of Cuba has paid tribute to this classic with a series of performances at the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater in Havana.

The tempestuous loves of the Seville cigarette girl has inspired others, three of which are considered emblematic: those of Roland Petit (1949), Alberto Alonso (1967), and Antonio Gades (1983).


After a successful performance in the Olympia, in Paris, of El Solar, one of his most applauded pieces, Alberto Alonso arrived in Moscow in 1965, and the choreographer himself often recalled that, following a performance, he was visited by the great Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaia (Mosow, 1925- Munich, 2015).

The meeting made history. Plisetskaia asked him to work with her on a version of Carmen, conceived "in a new way, without following the tradition." The original score of Bizet's opera was to be shortened, and arranged, a task to be undertaken by composer Rodion Shcedrin, the ballerina's husband.

The setting decor, originally designed by Boris Messerer (a relative of Plisestkaia's on her mother's side) is very austere, featuring a red backdrop, with the black outline of a huge bull's head, plus a simulated semicircular ring, with high-backed chairs for a few spectators to view the events.

For the Cuban staging, a magnificent wardrobe was designed by Salvador Fernández, beginning with a typical red mantilla, a symbol of human passion.

Carmen suite, or just Carmen, by the National Ballet of Cuba, premiered in Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, April 20, 1967, with Plisetskaia in the leading role, of course, and August 1, of that year, in Havana's Grand Theater, with Cuban prima ballerina Alicia Alonso. She made the character her own and became the legendary gypsy within the world of dance.

Two of the greatest ballerinas assolutas in the history of dance added this piece to their repertories, which has become a classic of contemporary dance.

Both left their mark. Maya emphasized the contemporary elements and Alicia made the Sevillian cigarette girl one of her most outstanding characterizations, adding her Hispanic roots to her classic training.

In an interview with the Saturday Review, July 27, 1968, Alberto Alonso commented, "Maya is strength, maturity, confrontation, courage. While Alicia is more sensual, more Latina, as is to be expected."

For those of us not fortunate enough to have seen them on the stage, there exists a record on film of both divas in the seductive role.

Carmen is one of the most important ballets in Cuban 20th century choreography, composed of one act and three scenes, in which the cigarette girl plays with the sentiments of three men: Don José; the bullfighter Escamillo; and Captain Zúñiga. The fifth part is that of Fate, who connects the scenes and guides the situation to inevitably fulfill her mission.


As part of the Havana International Theater Festival, October 22, the National Ballet of Cuba offered a special performance, extending the company's recent season, that included Carmen.

The program allowed the company to highlight its strengths in different styles. On this occasion, two works by Alicia Alonso were included: Umbral,

a neoclassical piece dedicated to one of her great teachers, George Balanchine, and A la luz de tus canciones, premiered during the centenary

of Cuban singer Esther Borja (1913-2013).

Carmen closed the performance and was presented with all of the company's conviction, from the soloists to the corps dancers. The three male characters were danced by Patricio Revé as Don José; Ariel Martínez, the bullfighter Escamillo; and Adrián Sánchez, as Zúñiga, with Claudia García as Fate.

But it was prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés who raised the temperature in the theater. She was splendid from the first chords until her death, possessed by the character, provoking with her spectacular technique.

In the world of ballet, they say that a dancer triumphs when she has mastered the roles of Giselle and Odette–Odile. Now, in the Cuban company, with Alicia Alonso as the ideal model, no doubt, the passionate, tragic Carmen must be added.