Close this search box.
Carmen ballet Johan Inger Australian Ballet Sydney April 2024


The story of Carmen is most commonly recognised as one of the most popular classical operas in the world. Bizet based his 1875 opera on a novella written by Prosper Mérimée 30 years before. The plot is action packed filled with crime, violence, “love” and deceit. Since then, the story has been massaged, bent, cleaned up and made more dirty through various tellings. Movies, stage plays, a magnificent flamenco version by Carlos Saura, a shallow, musical theatre-come-movie version named Carmen Jones starring Dorothy Daindridge and Harry Belafonte plus several ballets including the 1949 version by Roland Petit for his wife Zizi Jeanmaire.

Bizet’s operatic version tends to dominate how we picture the characters. A poor, innocent young man Don José is seduced by an all knowing and crafty gypsy woman Carmen. She is a professional smuggler who seduces who she pleases as well as seducing who is required in order to keep the business rolling along for the smuggling team. The opera adds a sweet, blonde, Micaela in stark contrast to the dark skinned, dark haired, dark intentioned Carmen. Micaela is a reminder of Don José’s Utopian life calling him back from whence he came. So, basically, it’s all Carmen’s fault that this man falls from grace.

Mérimée’s original version however, mentions an incident, long before he met Carmen. Don José speaks of a quarrel arising over a tennis match that he won where “we took our maquilas” (blades), José had the advantage and the result was him having to leave the country. He joined the cavalry in Almanza from where he was promoted and then placed on duty at the infamous Seville tobacco factory where Bizet’s story begins. Far from innocent, José was a murderer even before he got to Seville.

This Australian Ballet season was created by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger commissioned by Compania Nacional de Danza in Madrid, Spain making its premier in 2015. Drawing on a new perspective, Inger chose to comment on the dominating patriarchal society in which we have lived for such a long time. In our world, young men are brought up to believe that “to be a man” you must control and dominate by force. Inger’s view is that Don José is a victim of the society in which he is raised.

Although based on Mérimée’s novella, rather than Bizet’s opera, Inger still prefers to begin the story with an innocent Don José performed by Principal Artist Callum Linnane. Linnane was superb in his interpretation, with long, elegant lines and honest acting which cut to the bone. Particularly outstanding was his struggle with the flower petals after Carmen throws her flower at him and the nightmare scene in the second half.

Inger introduces a new character “the boy” – played by either male or female dancer. On opening night, this was beautifully portrayed by dancer Lilla Harvey. Beginning the evening dressed in innocent white, the boy witnesses the violence of Don José more than once and has to make a choice whether or not this is the male role model to follow into his own adulthood. It’s a very fresh, new way to look at the story and is as relevant today as it would have been centuries ago. Although the choreographer has left this role as “androgynous”, one wonders if the impact would be greater if he limited the role to the male performer. If the war between genders is so much of a focus in the telling of the story, why put in a female boy?

Ballet dance reviews Australian Ballet Jill Ogai Carmen Sydney Opera House April 2024
Jill Ogai and Callum Linnane in Carmen by Johan Inger with Australian Ballet at Sydney Opera House April 2024. Photo Daniel Boud.

In the title role is Principal Artist Jill Ogai. Beautifully cast, she threw herself into the role and all its demands. Performing well beyond the accuracy of the steps, she truly embodied the character. Despite the lewd movements and fickle skipping from one lover to the next, the audience was still completely on her side to the very end, free of judgement.

The sexual movements were not limited to Carmen. All the females and some of the males were challenged with this work as well. It’s a long long way from classical ballet in this regard and the all members of the cast were highly professional in rising to the challenge.

In the role of Zuniga, Principal Artist Brett Chynoweth created a strong, memorable militant. As Torero, Principal Artist Marcus Morelli played the attentive lover. It would be great to see this character develop into a more macho rock star as far as the choreography allows.

The music is a mix of Bizet’s well known opera score orchestrated by Álvaro Domínguez Vásquez, Bizet pieces extracted and re-written into new music for a smaller orchestra filled to the brim with loads of percussion by Rodion Shchedrin plus completely new music and soundscapes but Marc Álvarez. For the most part, the combined talents of these composers resulted in a wonderful, refreshing version that was easily accepted by the audience. The only exception to this would be some of the nightmare soundscape scenes which were distressing enough to distract away from the dancing in the second half.

Four dancers were dressed in black with faces and hands covered called “dogs”. It is unclear whether they refer to “the black dog” of depression or perhaps Thoth’s black dogs who prevent the freedom of humanity in the Emerald Tablets or some other context – most likely the former. By the second half they were joined by more black clad bodies acting out the domestic violence which, every time, leaves the woman dead on the floor. They were used to move bodies through the air as if spinning and flying to great effect, but also grabbing the haunted Don José covering mouth, eyes, heart and preventing him from moving about. It brought to mind the black clad Victorian police riot squad of recent years…

Particularly delightful in Inger’s version of the story is the factory scene. No other version known to the writer depicts the details of the argument and violence between the women inside the tobacco factory. The choreography easily depicted the factory-like mechanical workings of making a product, Carmen’s rebellion, the tension rising between the two factions and the breakout of the argument. In the original novella, Mérimée mentions how the young women in the factory often make themselves “comfortable” in the heat of the factory and thus, no men are allowed inside. (Can you imagine such racey images described in a book from the 1840’s?) Inger accurately represents this with the dresses half off.

The choreography generally was more sophisticated than the Roland Petit version of earlier decades. The first half was quirky, sometimes naughty, sometimes verging on street dance movements, sometimes a tribute to Petit. The second half was quite different where all Spanish influence and styling have disappeared and we plunge into the madness and desperation of Don José in a purely abstract sense. There’s a lot less of Bizet’s music and the friction continues to build up until the final release. Without giving you any spoilers, the death of Carmen is also very cleverly done looking from a higher perspective than the other versions. Excellent work!

We were told that tonight’s performance was dedicated to a long term supporter of the company, the late Robert Albert, who sat on the Board for 25 years, passing away in February. Also, that no Carmen ballet has been performed in Australia for 43 years.

This was a wonderful change of scene to the classic, beaten to death story. You are guaranteed to find new ways of looking at the characters and the bigger picture.

The company does a superb job of the story telling, dramatic and physical requirements. Bravo for the Australian Ballet. As word spreads, this will no doubt be a repeated season in the future. Meanwhile, get your tickets fast. CARMEN is playing the Joan Sutherland at the Sydney Opera House until 27th April 2024.

Principal Australian Ballet cast for opening night 10 April 2024

Carmen – Jill Ogai
Don José – Callum Linnane
Torero – Marcus Morelli
Zúniga – Brett Chynoweth
Boy – Lilla Harvey

Related links

Australian Ballet website:
Choreographer Johan Inger:
The original novella of Carmen:


Subscribe to our Bi-Weekly Newstetter

Sign up for our bi-weekly newsletter to receive updates and stay informed about art and cultural events around Sydney. – it’s free!

Want More?

Get exclusive access to free giveaways and double passes to cinema and theatre events across Sydney. 

Scroll to Top