Tones sounded in the Kimmel Center lobby, and a red-coated usher announced that it was time for ticket holders to take their seats. I was already sitting—in fact, I lay on my couch beneath a plush blanket—because this was a virtual performance more than a year into the Covid pandemic. But I appreciated how the camera passing between doors opened by masked ushers simulated the experience of entering Verizon Hall, where the artists of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Brian Sanders’ JUNK, distanced and wearing masks, waited to perform A Modern-Day Carmen Fantasy for a lucky audience watching from home.
Transforming our challenges
After a disheartening February of bad news and never-ending snow, I eagerly anticipated the Philadelphia Orchestra’s reunion with Brian Sanders’ JUNK, the inventive dance company that joined the orchestra for an unforgettable Romeo and Juliet in April 2019. JUNK also performed one of my favorite pieces in the 2019 Fringe Festival, Skein of Heart. Live music is what most people have most missed during the shutdown, but my heart has ached for dance, the art form that consistently moves me more than any other. A Modern-Day Carmen Fantasy offered the best of both worlds: a performance of Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite (after Bizet) accompanied by a dance conceived and directed by Sanders. The dancers and musicians gave thrilling performances in an event that transformed the challenges of the past year into innovative art.
Before the hour-long show, both Sanders and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin addressed the audience in prerecorded video versions of program notes. Nézet-Séguin spoke of Carmen’s themes and musical heritage before naming the orchestra’s previous collaboration with JUNK one of his favorite memories of his time in Philadelphia. Next, Sanders described his process of developing the dance, which made pandemic lemons into artistic lemonade by moving performers backstage and covering their PPE with Venetian-inspired masks.
Masks and mannequins
Sanders’s artistic vision and the dancers’ sexy athleticism elevated the music, bringing to life the story of Carmen, an alluring Romani woman who works in a tobacco factory in Seville, and the men who cannot resist her. Hiding the dancers’ faces behind masks created by JoAnne Jacobs did not take away from the performance but rather enhanced it. The masks highlighted how the characters see one another not as people but as types—seductress, lover, cuckold—which in turn suggested how viewers can see themselves in Carmen (Kelly Trevlyn), José (Joe Rivera), and his rival Lucas (Teddy Fatscher).
Similarly, clever use of costume mannequins in the opening scene, where José steps through doors that open behind the orchestra at the rear of the stage, raises questions about the boundary between reality and fantasy. The seeming mannequins resemble spinning music-box dancers as they begin to move, some on hoverboards. The mannequins appeared to come to life, or did they? Camera tricks heightened the effect and the drama.
Precision, seduction, suspension
The dancers and the orchestra shone in the fifth scene, “Carmen’s Entrance and Habanera,” which contains a famous musical sequence that will be familiar to most listeners. The expert precision of percussionists Christopher Deviney and Angela Zator Nelson combined with evocatively swelling strings as red light bathed the dancers’ black and red costumes, also by Jacobs. Trevlyn’s hair tosses were both flippant and seductive before she lit a cigarette and blew it out in a gesture that reflected Carmen's cavalier way of rushing into romance and then discarding lovers.
Remembering the breathtaking aerial work in JUNK’s Romeo and Juliet, I anticipated sexy acrobatics and Carmen delivered, especially in the torero and adagio sequences. In the former, dancers used a chair as a base for inversions as they held their bodies vertically and horizontally with only their hands touching the seat. Rivera and Fatscher were riveting in a slow, sensual scene where they battled for Carmen’s affection atop a prop that looked like a velvet-clad pommel horse. The image of the music-box dancer returned when Carmen seemed to float around her rejected lover with one perfectly pointed foot barely touching the floor. In fact, Trevlyn was suspended from a harness that allowed her movement to visually mirror the frustration of partners locking horns and going in circles. The harnesses returned in the fortune-telling scene, in which Jess Adams, Julia Higdon, Laura Jenkins, and Desirée Navall swung in the air with their heads hanging at broken-neck angles to foreshadow the fate of Carmen’s characters.
An unstoppable force
As the Carmen Suite faded from quiet strings into silence, the dancers joined the musicians on stage to stand facing the empty house before the lights went out. The total silence evoked the demise of the vibrant Carmen and her lovers as well as the sobering state of the arts as the pandemic drags on. It reminds viewers that this captivating performance had no live audience and received no applause. But just like Carmen, the arts are an unstoppable force, and they will continue to bloom like the roses she tosses to admirers.
Image description: A scene from A Modern-Day Carmen Fantasy. A few human figures, some living and some mannequins, pose and stretch on the stage under dramatic red lighting.
What, When, Where
A Modern-Day Carmen Fantasy. Presented by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Brian Sanders’ JUNK at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, premiering March 4, 2021 and streaming on demand through March 11. Get tickets ($17) through the Philadelphia Orchestra website.