A Language the Whole World Speaks: An Interview with Alla Sigalova
April 25, 2017

When a theater piece, such as Carmen, is written in France, set in Spain, helmed by a Russian director and performed by American actors, how do you avoid the story getting lost in translation? If you’re Alla Sigalova, you stage it in a language that the whole world speaks: movement. Returning to the A.R.T. Institute this season after having directed Final Cut in 2014 Sigalova—renowned director, choreographer, and Russian TV personality—offers Cambridge audiences a unique interpretation of Georges Bizet’s beloved opera, Carmen.

Carmen: Études, a concept production first staged in Russia at the Moscow Art Theatre School in 2007, is being presented by the 2017 graduating class of the American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training this May in an iteration Sigalova has entirely reimagined.

“I have a quality that is great for a choreographer to have: I don’t remember the ‘text’ of my previous productions,” says Sigalova. “The difference, as is always the case in my productions, is that we have entirely different actors here. I think it is wrong to create a suit specifically for one person and then give it to another person without making adjustments to it. I never do that. I am interested in my actors, and I see their personalities, their individualities, and I want to work with them and create for them.”

Expanding upon some of the major themes from Bizet’s opera, itself based on an earlier novella by French author Prosper Mérimée, Carmen: Études explores the energy of youth, the complicated and somewhat fickle nature of love, and the extremity of human passion. Although Carmen’s iconic love triangle plays a prominent role in Sigalova’s piece, this production is not a retelling of the Carmen story that theatergoers around the world have grown familiar with. Instead, Sigalova has sought out fresh inspiration in aged material.

“It was the music that first inspired me,” Sigalova confides. “The most important things in any project is the music.” She goes on to reveal that while the majority of the music included in Carmen: Études is sourced from Carmen Suite (the 1967 Rodion Shchedrin ballet adapted from Bizet’s opera) she has pulled from other sources as well.

“I needed particular music to bring very specific meaning. I was searching for specific music to justify and show the actions that I was looking for in certain scenes. That is why I have included a piece from Bizet’s opera, a piece called ‘Asturias’ by a composer named [Isaac] Albeniz, and a small piece from a Pedro Almodóvar film.”.

Theater that puts such a strong emphasis on music and movement can walk a fine line with dance, but Sigalova is quick to assert that this is not the case with Carmen: Études.

“What we’re doing here is not dancing per se—it’s actually acting. Choreography is my craft, and so of course that plays a role in my directing, but we are using techniques and language that great directors like Stanislavsky developed and are expanding upon it.”

Talking about her style as a director, Sigalova jokes that “the director or choreographer’s job is to manipulate people, and the more qualified or gifted the choreographer, the better she is at tricking the actors into doing what she wants while they think they did it themselves.”

Sigalova certainly falls into the category of ‘qualified’ when it comes to directing. “I hold over 150 performances as a director or choreographer, so to surprise me at this point is practically impossible. My style is that of a pharmacist—and I am a German pharmacist, so I am a very precise person. Before I come into the rehearsal room I know exactly what I want, but I leave room for some surprises in rehearsal. When I was less experienced, I would get really nervous and upset when those surprises happened because I had a plan, but now I don’t get nervous. I can usually predict what is going to go wrong in a rehearsal and am prepared to handle it.”

Sigalova’s extensive experience as a performer, choreographer, and master teacher gives her a cultivated confidence: working with students possessing varying degrees of experience in dance and movement, Sigalova is certain about the performers’ ability to achieve her vision.

“These people—these personalities—they inspire me. Our creativity and our happiness in life come from our interactions with new people, interesting people, creative people—they’re the inspiration. The most important thing in this production—and the most beautiful thing in theater—is that the actors are alive on stage. A person who is alive on stage is worth watching, and if a director gets the opportunity to showcase that life, that is the most precious thing."

Elizabeth Amos is a first-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training.

Carmen runs at the A.R.T. Insititute May 20-27, 2017 in The Ex at the Loeb Drama Center.

Elizabeth Amos
Publication date:
April 25, 2017

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