Sasha Janes had no idea that he would ever be choreographing a new version of Georges Bizet's Carmen until the morning when N.C. Dance Theatre artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux called him into his office. On the heels of his triumphant Dangerous Liaisons last season, Bonnefoux wondered whether Janes might have another torrid one-act up his sleeve for 2013-14.
"He caught me off guard, actually," Janes recalls, "but I said, 'What about Carmen or La Bohème?'"
Bonnefoux didn't hesitate. Carmen it was, in the blink of an eye. But how did an Australian choreographer take a 19th century French opera set in Spain and transplant it to American soil — Charlotte, N.C., to be precise — in the middle of the Great Depression? That took a little longer, says Janes.
"Two hours after this meeting, I thought: Well, Carmen is set in a tobacco factory, and North Carolina is filled with tobacco factories! So why don't we try to put it in North Carolina if we can?"
The tobacco bridge between Seville and the Tarheel State soon dissolved because Janes couldn't find a way to work the other two-thirds of the Carmen love triangle into his scenario. One piece of the puzzle was Don José, the military officer who falls for Carmen's sensuous allure, and the other was charismatic bullfighter Escamillo, who effortlessly wins her adoration. So Janes took another tack. A NoDa resident, Janes couldn't help but notice all the textile mills in the area, so he toyed with the idea of converting Carmen from a cigarette-rolling temptress into a saucy millworker.
Still, the problem of creating parallel lives for Don José and Escamillo loomed. Janes set about doing some research, an intriguing prospect for an Aussie whose knowledge of American history during his formative years didn't extend far beyond the Civil War, a few presidents and Lincoln's assassination. Soon he hit paydirt.
"I found out about the uprising of '34 when Roosevelt had ushered in the New Deal and the minimum wage was meant to go up," says Janes. "The mill owners didn't play their part, the mill workers starting getting unionized, and they went on strike because of the conditions. It got to the point where the National Guard was called in to quell the strike, which was great because now I have my Don José character!"
Only the problem of finding the North Carolina equivalent of a celebrity matador remained. It was here that Janes' research took him beyond what most locals know or remember about life at the mills.
"I found out more about that whole culture. They developed their own textile mill baseball league. Each mill had its own baseball team, and they used to play one another, and it became very popular — to the point where it became a competition for the [major leagues]. They would try to entice players to play for their teams, because the mill owners had a bit of money. So I thought, 'Well, great! We'll make him a baseball star.'"
Janes also emerged from his research with an altered idea of the music he wanted to set. Besides the Carmen suites crafted by Leonard Bernstein and Rodion Shchedrin, Janes is mixing in some authentic bluegrass from Dorsey Dixon, which will be performed live.
All the familiar Carmen music — including the "Habanera," the "Seguidilla" and the "Toreador Song" — will be pre-recorded for the performances at Knight Theater. Just don't expect capes, cigarettes or sombreros.
"One of the dances will be a baseball dance," Janes promises. "We have eight men dancing with baseball bats!"
Janes tried to field nine men in his baseball dance, but it just didn't work. Not to worry, Carmen will be heavily populated with 18 members of the main NCDT company, eight members of the NCDT2 apprentice company, six children, and — as the mill owner — the inimitable Mark Diamond. Act 2 of the program will be nothing less than George Balanchine's Western Symphony, set by former New York City Ballet superstar Patricia McBride. It's an immigrant's homage to cowboys and the West, a classical confection teeming with music culled from Western movie sagas.
All in all, then, the evening NCDT has titled Carmen will deliver a huge chunk of Americana.
"Yeah," Janes agrees, "brought to you by a French man and an Australian!"