Brian Sanders’ acrobatic dance troupe JUNK swung into action at Verizon Hall with Kensho Watanabe conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra for three performances of the “Carmen Suite,” scored to Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s adaptation of French composer Georges Bizet’s symphonic narrative, from March 10-12.
Two years ago, Sanders had told the classic 19th-century version of “Carmen” with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Digital Stage series streamed live during the pandemic, with the dancers wearing full character masks and N95s. For most of the performance, the troupe had performed in a backstage area, distanced from Maestro Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the musicians onstage. The broadcast from the Philadelphia Orchestra streaming website was a valiant try, but the cameras moving from the musicians onstage to the scenes of cloistered masked dancers was a stretch, as it came across as visually disjointed.
This time, the dancers and the orchestra were on the same stage in Sanders’ completely reconceived, seriocomic adaptation of the Carmen story, so dizzying that the plot points were spelled out on a supertitle screen over the stage.
Hovering over the musicians were the trapeze wires, poles, and apparatus designed by John Howell and Pedro Silva, which included rawhide-sculpted pommel horses. The rigging, operated on wires by a phalanx of stage engineers from Sapsis Rigging, Inc. controlling the dancer hoists from Verizon’s upper-tier balcony.
Sanders portrayed an archaeologist exploring the history of the story, including the ancient Greek origins, which turned into the story of the seductive Carmen, the bored cigar factory vamp from Seville in a steamy love triangle of betrayal and revenge. In the now 2023 tale, Carmen was a sultry barista among co-workers texting between orders and busting out in an acro-robotic Busby Berkeley dance assembly line.
The dance arena was behind the full orchestra this time. The characters were introduced on roller skates, but it looked like they were floating on the heads of the musicians.
Katherine Corbett played Carmen, statuesque and defiantly seductive in a black-vinyl-kini while performing a pole dance to Bizet’s famous Habanero passage. Corbett was acrobatically lyrical as she was athletically fearless in this performance. Later, Corbett partnered with Sammy Wong as the seducer Don Jose and William Brazdzionis as Lucas (the Picador), the two-timing other man in more ways than one.
The pommel horses descended for Carmen and Don Jose’s sweaty duet and were joined by Brazdzionis as Lucas (the Picador), who did an even steamier duet with Don Jose that was even more explicit.
The men also executed some precarious lifts and aerial holds, which were more impressive acrobatically than any that happened. However, the audience, which had been clap-happy until then, was met with dead silence. They were either not ready for “50 shades of gay” or perhaps they were captivated in awed silence. Anyway, the pommel duets, however lusty, were an exemplar of Sanders’ dancier-acrobatics. Another arresting moment came as Wong scaled the dance pole 20 feet in the air, inverted his body for a dramatic freefall slide down to Carmen’s feet.
There was an opportunity for more dance infusion into the choreography, given the score’s ripe dance themes. Tango was Bizet’s central motif, but there were also evocations of bolero, torero, and in Shchedrin’s re-orchestrations of Carmen, adding more percussive driving to its symphonic pulse with Chris Deviney and Angela Nelson on marimba and Deviney on the boffo bongo passages.
The second part of the program was Lili Boulanger’s “On a Sad Evening” and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. In remarks at the top of the concert, Maestro Watanabe told the audience that Boulanger’s “sound-world” prefaces the atmospherics of The Firebird and that the works would be performed without a pause. Boulanger was just 25 when she died in 1918 of a chronic illness. “On a Sad Evening” was first performed in a chamber orchestra transcription after her death. Boulanger’s neoclassical architecture, dynamic progressions, and progressive musical ideas are revelatory even now, especially as detailed in this performance.
It is a jarring shift to soar right into the path of the Firebird, which remains one of the most evocative ballet scores in the canon. And it is one of the most dance-accessible scores for dance companies since its premiere. It is always instructive to hear famous ballet scores in the concert hall, where there are no adjustments in tempos or chunks of music being moved around to match the choreography.
From its brooding lower-string-led symphonic pulse to the appearance out of that atmospheric mist, illuminated by the Firebird reed principals Pat Williams (flute), Philippe Tondre (oboe), and Sam Caviezel (clarinet), and the afterburn of the blazing brass section led by Jennifer Montone (French horn), David Elton (trumpet), and Nitzan Haroz (trombone).
Conductor Watanabe’s tempos were fast and fiery throughout, unleashing Stravinsky’s sonic fireworks of the ‘Infernal Dance of Kastchei’ without losing its textural dimensions. The orchestra made it more than a showpiece. Watanabe is a former assistant conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra (2016-19) and is now emerging as one of his generation’s most in-demand conductors. He definitely has the right stuff, maestro moves on the podium.