Sharper, tighter, tauter, tougher - that's how I find Matthew Bourne's steamy "re-imagining" of Bizet's Carmen compared to its premiere seven years ago at the Old Vic. The gypsy fire has been rekindled in Dino's diner and garage in the 1960s Middle American fictional town of Harmony (population 375) - and the hot dogs are sizzling.
I confess to underrating Bourne's narrative skills before. He switches genders around in his re-telling of Prosper Merimee's story and stirs in elements of The Postman Always Rings Twice, West Side Story, Hitchcock's thrillers and po-faced Martha Graham-style dance.
The latter’s troilist spoof in the night club ("Le Beat Route") echoes the central plot. The drifter Luca seduces Lana, Dino's wife. After things come to a head, and murder committed with a huge spanner, Lana frames her rival for Luca's sexual attentions, who happens to be her own sister's male lover, Angelo. How this unravels is beautifully done in the second act of prison visits, bloody ghosts, sadness and desperation.
The seductive characteristics of Carmen are thus split between Luca and Lana, who compete throughout in the sultry stakes. Alan Vincent is once again dancing Luca, as is the taller, darker James Leece, whom I saw at the second performance. Lana is once again danced by the long-limbed, hair-tossing Michela Meazza, who stretches and corkscrews with boundless athleticism, gracefully completing every movement to the tips of her toes and fingers.
The company, which continues a long tour after the Sadler's Wells stint, includes Scott Ambler as the comically cuckolded Dino - waving cheerily to his wife as she subsides to the floor underneath Luca upstairs - Shelby Williams as Rita, the tragic sister, and Sam Archer as a surprisingly bisexual Angelo, all excellent.
The score is a skilful arrangement by Terry Davies of Rodion Shchedrin's
Carmen Suite (prepared for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1967) alongside other Bizet pieces and his own original music. This makes for a two-hour dance show that will surely become a modern classic on a par with Bourne's Swan Lake and (my favourite) his Play Without Words for the National.
Lez Brotherston's designs are well worth re-visiting, too, creating a tacky world of garage and greasy spoon, with cheap furniture and car lamps, switching easily to the night spot and the jailhouse, always leaving plenty of room for the elaborate hoe-downs, rumbles and rhapsodic ensembles where the dancers are seen, quite literally, to be coming together.
Another sly touch, with Carmen Jones (where Husky Miller is a boxer) on the horizon at the Festival Hall, is the fisticuffs motif, with Luca educating Angelo in how to "put 'em up" before developing his body hold technique into an erotic proposition. This exhilarating show is full of such provocative and suggestive elisions and moves.