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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Peninsula Ballet Theater & Ensambles Ballet Folklorico Carmen & Frida April 1-2, 2023

As women’s history month comes to a close, Peninsula Ballet Theater (PBT) and Ensambles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco (Ensambles) bring us two tales centered around strong female figures. The first is devoted to the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and the second to the operatic character Carmen.

Press photo Peninsula Ballet Theater & Ensambles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco Carmen & Frida

Gregory Armato’s balletic Carmen (world-premiere) is performed to Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite, a re-scored version of Bizet’s Carmen for strings and percussion. Amato brings a freshness to the love triangle between Carmen, her soldier/lover Don Jose, and a bullfighter, by casting Don Jose’s rival as a woman, the torero Maribel. Joining the three central figures is Fate, an inescapable presence danced with commanding assurance by Lena Alvino.

Aline Carili is magnetic as Carmen, drawing us in with her fiery high kick, sultry footwork and smoldering eyes. Juan Carlos Magacho embodies a most proper soldier, his pirouettes masterfully controlled.

PBT’s dancers bring the Spanish village vibrantly to life. Duran Andrade, Evan Johnston and Bernando Ramos are versatile and charming. In their drunken dance, their broad flexed-foot fan kicks morph into inebriated stumbles with a comic ease. Later they are indulgent fathers. Playing at toreadors they wave their wives’ shawls so their children, PBT students Ruby Skulpone, Audrey Stoll and Keira Sweany, may charge them as tiny bulls.

Swept up in new love, Magacho spins on his toes, arms spread wide. His vulnerability is writ large as he removes his uniform jacket revealing a bare chest. Amato’s choreography allows the sexual tension to build in lingering poses. Magacho holds Carili in a deep dip, her head inches from the floor. With Carili held tenderly above him, Magacho sinking ever so slowly to his knees, we anticipate their culminating kneeling cinch.

A carnival atmosphere develops outside the bullfight. The assembled masses are literally pulsing, rising to the balls of their feet and dropping back to a flat foot, a physical manifestation of the drumbeat awaiting the arrival of torero Kelley Hasshemi. All eyes are on her, most especially Carmen’s. Their desire is instantaneous, hand-in-hand their hips undulate. Sadly, this hint of lady love is enough to send two separate groups of attendees for the doors.

Fate appears once more, as the bystanders melt away allowing the return of a scorned and vengeful Don Jose to take full focus. Hasshemi’s body is a sword drawn above Machego, her toes in the rafters, as he holds her on extended arms. Carmen seeks to calm them, as they are separated for a moment. Don Jose lunges at his rival, but in an operatically tragic moment, his knife finds his lover Carmen instead.

Aline’s final moments are breathtaking, as she seeks to assure all that she is fine, not injured at all. Her confident smile dissolves as she grabs her side, imploding from within as she falls. Our final image is that of Fate, her hand raised defiantly over the scene.

Amato’s Carmen is a transporting and entertaining. The PBT dancers perform it with energy and confidence and the music is crowd-pleasing. This one deserves a reprise sooner rather than later.

Bows for PBT's CARMEN photo: J. Norris

Ensambles’s Artistic Director and Choreographer Zenon Barron’s Frida is a pastiche of dramatizations and dance. A multi-media collage of still images of the paintings of Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera as well as snippets of footage and soundtrack from Julie Taymor’s 2002 biographical film about Kahlo.

Barron’s Frida unfolds in a series of compact segments with dance styles ranging from the social dances of the forties, to ballet, to traditional Mexican. Dancers create tableaus that coincide with familiar images from Kahlo’s paintings. A rectangle of huge paper flowers frame two women seated side by side. One in white and the other blue, they evoke Kahlo’s The Two Fridas (Las dos Fridas), 1939.

The backdrop fills with the sights and sounds of Taymor’s trolley scene and the crash in which Kahlo is gravely injured. In the foreground performers create a bus. The driver hand presses forward beeping in time to the film’s soundtrack. He struggles to control the steering wheel, as the rider-dancers’ jostle off each other leaving a woman lying unmoving. The screen goes dark. Figures in long black dresses and veils enter circling the body. As their ritual concludes, a man in white comes to pay his respects. He leads a procession who carry the body off, above their heads.

The ballet folklorico sections are where the Ensambles company shines brightest. The audience engages fully as the vibrant color of a dozen folklorico skirts swirl and as many wide-brimmed straw-hats dip and rise as the male partners enter. The percussive tap of hard-soled shoes fills the space for the Danza de los Diablos. In red horned masks with long-haired straggly beards and matching brown furry chaps the dancers cross-step creating patterns together. The Flor de Piña or "Flower of Pineapple" folk dance is delightful. The women dance with a pineapple on their shoulders and offer them as gifts.

There are numerous costume changes, some for dances that last under three minutes. Barron’s costumes are lovely but at times superfluous. One suspects that certain dances exist for their costumes rather than the costumes existing for the dance. While Frida has been condensed to one act, since its two-act premiere in 2012, it is still overly long. There is joy and interest here, thought the focus is muddled. I might suggest creating two pieces from the material, one rich in all things Kahlo and the other pure Folklorico.

Bows for Ensambles de Folklorico de San Francisco's FRIDA Photo: J Norris

Review by Jen Norris, published April 2, 2023.



Peninsula Ballet Theater & Ensables Ballet Folklorico's Carmen & Frida April 1-2, 2023

San Mateo Performing Arts Center, San Mateo, CA


Peninsula Ballet Theatre

Artistic Director/Choreographer: Gregory Amato

Music: Rodion Shchedrin after Georges Bizet

Carmen: Aline Carili Don José: Juan Carlos Magacho Maribel: Kelley Hashemi Fate: Léna Alvino

Villagers: Duran Andrade, Timmorie Freeman, Isabelle Glavin, Evan Johnston, Vinnie Jones, Elise Holmes, Alyssa-Marie Muña, Bernardo Ramos, Hollie Rudolph, Naomi Sailors, Chloé Watson

Apprentice: Melia Kramer Students: Jack Alger, David Carter, Ruby Skulpone, Audrey Stoll, Keira Sweany


Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco Artistic Director/Choreographer: Zenón Barrón Costume Design: Zenón Barrón Costume Construction: Magnolia Ferreira, María Orozco, Jesús Gómez Music: Frida (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Dancers: Alejandro Ledesma, Aline G. Salazar Díaz, Carlos S. Zambrano, Chelsea Atziri Ferreira, David Brye-Cadena, Gabriela Hernández, Hugo Flores, Javier Espinoza Barajas, Jeannette Quintana, Jennifer Mariana López Ramírez, Jesús Gómez, Karina Vásquez, Karla Toledo, Leticia Torres Elias, Lupita Troncoso, Manaure Uc Cetina, María Anaya, Mariana Hernández, Maricela Benavides, Mario López, Omar Alexis Rincon, Oscár Humberto Ludwig, Pablo Daniel Jiménez García, Patricia Salvador, Priscilla Giler

Una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda: Habaneras - El Chorrito

El Accidente de Frida: La Calavera - Still Life

El Corset de Frida: Xquenda

Mujer Desnuda: Nereida - Danzón

Frida Frente al Espejo: La Noche De Mi Mal (Choreographers: Alejandro Ledesma & Roxanne Onofre)

Guelaguetza Oaxaqueña: Danza de los Diablos - Flor de Pina

La Casa Azul: Hoy no Existo - El Amuleto

Las Dos Fridas: Mosaico Oaxaqueno - Tortuga del Arenal

Fridas Campesinas: Volar (Peninsula Ballet Theater) - El Medio Toro

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