Becoming Don Jose and Carmen has been a transformational experience for the stars of the Royal NZ Ballet's Carmen.

The normally blond, surfer locks of leading man Joseph Skelton have been dyed dark brown and shorn for his role as the arrogant and macho Don Jose, a handsome Spaniard smitten by the bewitching Carmen.

There's a hard edge to Don Jose's bearing, a sense of contained energy that could be unleashed at any moment, which is quite a contrast from the charming, easy-going New Zealand dancer.

Meanwhile, the shoulder-length, light-auburn tresses of leading lady, Ukrainian guest star Natalya Kusch, are hidden under Carmen's saucily gamine black wig, making Kusch barely recognisable. Kusch's Carmen is an alluring Spanish temptress, queen of all she surveys.


Changing looks is vital in helping the dancers adjust to a different style of ballet.

Carmen, alongside a second famous Roland Petit (1924-2011) ballet, L'Arlesienne (The Woman from Arles), are being danced in New Zealand for the first time and both feature music by Georges Bizet.

French master choreographer Petit's style of classical ballet was revolutionary in his day but looks markedly different to the ethereal and effortless style we've come to expect. The dancing is earthy - more grounded - and minus the super high extensions we now take for granted in arabesques.

The jumps are just as high but the landings take advantage of the dance floor to slide a little, revealing the forces at work. The story is compressed to 45 minutes and the characters are more like real people exchanging volatile emotions. It means there's a heightened tension to interactions arising from lust and desire, jealousy and vengeance.

Skelton and Kusch say dancing Carmen is both exciting and challenging. As Skelton points out, being Don Jose is very different from being a Prince like Albrecht in Giselle.

"There's no slow introduction to the character at the start like there is in Giselle," he says. "Instead, I have to be fully in character the moment I step on stage, with Don Jose's body language, his fast and constantly changing rhythms and his emotional journey.

"He's on stage for the whole 45 minutes and the grounded, downward emphasis and square-shouldered bearing are quite exhausting. There are no moments of release."

"Don Jose's story is about what he's going through, the way he falls totally for Carmen and then is tossed aside by her. My dancing has to share his state of mind as he is overtaken by events."


Kusch has for many years dreamed of dancing the lead in Petit's Carmen and, like Skelton, says the role is like nothing she has ever danced before.

"She is real: a crazy, demanding, violent woman. She has this fire inside that drives her and she can make men fall in love with her as soon as they look at her. She is passionate and infuriating and she doesn't care who she hurts."

"Carmen is a very intense role and it is all over so quickly that it is hard to let it go afterwards, to get back into your own body and mind and become yourself again."

Outgoing Royal NZ Ballet artistic director Francesco Ventriglia, for whom Petit was a mentor, hired former Petit company dancer, Luigi Bonino, to work with the dancers and recreate the famed works. Often programmed together to represent Petit's legacy, these ballets are both tragedies.

"L'Arlesienne is utterly different from Carmen," says Bonino. "It tells of a mysterious woman from Arles who is the obsession of Frederi, a man who is due to be married. He marries his fiancee, Vivette, but is unable to sustain the relationship and commits suicide.

"It has wonderful music by Bizet that incorporates local folk tunes, dancing based on chain dance the farandole, colourful clothing recalling local styles, and a huge painting by Van Gogh, which hangs behind the dancing. It is very French."

Bonino adds that it's a pleasure to bring them to the farthest reaches for the first time.