Carlos Acosta’s Carmen: An enjoyable if uneven take on Bizet’s classic

Acosta Danza's Carmen
Acosta Danza's Carmen - Johan Persson

Really, that Carmen is a minx! She reels the unwary in, promises the world, leaves bitterness and regret in her wake... You have to wonder: should such behaviour really be allowed?

The Carmen I’m talking about is not, of course, the titular heroine of Bizet’s 1875 creation, but the work itself; those disappointed gulls, both the umpteen choreographers who, over the decades, have felt helplessly compelled to retool his marvellous opera as dance, and the faithful audiences who, every time, turn up expecting so much and so often leave unsatisfied. As recently as March, English National Ballet proved merely the latest troupe to come a cropper with this tale, modishly recasting it as a fable of craven male jealousy in a take as well-intentioned as it was completely leaden.

The good news is that the great Carlos Acosta’s latest version for his zippy young troupe Acosta Danza is quite some way better than both ENB’s and the short adaptation that he himself created for the Royal Ballet as a farewell gift in 2015, and on which this new full-evening take is based. Unlike ENB’s, it takes a more traditional and (in the context of the 2020s) bolder approach to the story, seeing Don José as a fellow who gives his all only to be toyed with and betrayed – and also unlike ENB’s, this one does have a sexy glint in its eye.

Steps and score alike are a lively blend of western classical and Cuban. Carmen herself is en pointe, the tremulous pas de deux affectionately indebted to Kenneth MacMillan, but many of the ensemble passages feel pure Havana; similarly, Bizet (in a watery recording of Rodion Shchedrin’s so-so 1967 rearrangement) is spiced up with additional contributions from Martin Yates, Yhovani Duarte and Denis Paralta. True, there are moments when individual dancers’ classical technique doesn’t feel quite up to the demands of Acosta’s steps, but overall this feels like a hybrid musical and choreographic language the company understands and enjoys – it’s a good fit.

As in 2015, though more pronounced now, there’s the arresting if not entirely necessary framing device of The Bull, a Fate-like Spanish-folkloric master of ceremonies, played by Acosta himself – still commanding the stage muscularly at 51, and (definitely not an insult) also evoking Tim Curry’s Lord of Darkness in the 1985 Ridley Scott adventure Legend. Under his direction, the story begins at the end, with Don José slumped over Carmen’s presumably lifeless body and The Bull then manipulating the duo into upright physical positions so they, and we, can return to the start of their doomed romance.

Alejandro Silva and Laura Rodríguez
Alejandro Silva and Laura Rodríguez - Tristram Kenton

Otherwise, the story (despite some fussy meteorological projection-work) is told fairly straight, centring on the time-honoured love triangle of Carmen (an excellent Laura Rodríguez), her beau Don José (Alejandro Silva, the evening’s stand-out) and her new squeeze the hunky bullfighter Escamillo (Enrique Corrales, handsome but a little too cartoonishly peacockish). If I felt entertained but disappointingly unengaged in Act I, Rodríguez and Silva worked up a real head of steam towards the end, drawing you belatedly but potently into their tailspin towards disaster. An extra mention is due, too, for the moodily lit and designed bodega-based ensembles in Act II, danced by a hot-as mustard male and female corps, and coming across like an exhilarating Cuban take on a traditional classical “white act” – it’s like seeing Acosta’s Royal Ballet training refracted back through his national heritage.

So, is Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man (2000) still the only 21st-century Carmen that does Bizet’s score full justice? I’m afraid so. But Acosta’s is fun, pacy, and gives you a real tang of his remarkable homeland – and there are far worse things than that.

Until July 6. Tickets: 020 7863 8000;