Dancers Rosa Prigan (above left) and Zoe Emilie Henrot (right) are featured in Ballet Co.Laboratory’s production of "Carmen in the 1920s." Pixel Dust Photography

Ballet Co. transports Bizet’s heroine to 1920s Manhattan.

Ballet Co.Laboratory will bring back Carmen in the 1920s as the final show in its fifth anniversary season. Artistic director Zoe Emilie Henrot has reimagined French composer Georges Bizet’s 19th-century opera as a ballet set in Manhattan in the Roaring ’20s. The company first performed her Jazz Age adaptation just after its founding in 2018. The new production will be presented from May 19-21 in E.M. Pearson Theatre at Concordia University.

Carmen was the first opera she saw growing up, said Henrot, a resident of Highland Park. The title character is a strong-willed woman, she said, “and when the opera was written (in the 1870s), you didn’t always see that in a female protagonist.”

Freedom to make her own mistakes

In reimagining Carmen, Henrot turned the spotlight on the female characters but retained the disparities in class structure that were portrayed in the original opera. To do that, she said, she could think of no better decade than the 1920s when the societal constraints on women were most apparent and amplified by disparities in class. “I needed an era that would have allowed women to be Carmenesque,” she said.

“We often think of Carmen as a temptress,” said Rosa Prigan, who will dance the title role. “But there’s more to Carmen than meets the eye. It’s our challenge to look closer and discover that she, like the rest of us, wants the freedom to make her own choices and mistakes. She’s not a rich girl. She’s doing her best to get by. And that means she makes choices that maybe other people wouldn’t. But she wants to be free above all else. And I think that speaks to the societal and economic pressures on her.

“I almost feel that the story of Carmen fits better in the 1920s than the 1800s because there were so many things about the ’20s that were in opposition to certain classes and women,” Prigan added. “There was extreme wealth and prosperity and there was not. People looked to freedom within things like Prohibition.”

New characters for this ‘Carmen’

For the ballet, Henrot renamed some of the characters. Don José from the original Carmen becomes Donny, a gangster. Escamillo becomes Eddy, a famous baseball player. There is a speakeasy scene that pays homage to the ways in which queer culture blossomed in 1920s nightlife. A new character, Lee, from the opera’s Lillas Pastia, is modeled after actress Marlene Dietricht.

Although the ballet is set in Manhattan, Henrot found her inspiration for the music in Saint Paul in the 1920s. “I was looking at Saint Paul and F. Scott Fitzgerald and how there are spaces in the Twin Cities that just scream 1920s,” she said. “And there’s a huge swing (dance) community here.”

Live jazz and swing dancing

The music for Carmen in the 1920s was written by nationally known jazz artist John Erickson. It will be performed live on stage by a five-piece band that interacts with the dancers. The production features 15 company dancers and nearly 100 students from Ballet Co.Laboratory’s school.

“Ballet is always the spine of what we do,” Henrot said, “but our dancers have been studying jazz and swing dance in preparation because the choreography really brings all of those different dance forms together.

“I took a year or so of swing classes when I first created Carmen in the 1920s, and I always heard, ‘swing means bounce. So to work on scenes that have more swing-inspired choreography, I’d have the entire company feel the bounce. You’re still going to point your foot down, but there has to be the bounce.”

Local swing dance artist Hannah MacKenzie-Margulies led some of the workshops with the ballet company members. “And some of our dancers, since having swing classes here, have started going to swing dances in the community,” Henrot said.

Prigan has enjoyed the extra preparation. “I love jazz, the ebb and flow and the groove,” she said. “Definitely, the swing dancing on pointe is a challenge, but it’s working.”

Four shows May 19-21

Carmen in the 1920s will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday, at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 19-21.

Tickets are $40, $35 for seniors and $30 for students and children. For ticket reservations, visit


— Anne Murphy


MyVillager welcomes comments from readers. Please include your full name and the neighborhood in which you live. Be respectful of others and stay on topic. We reserve the right to remove any comment we deem to be profane, rude, insulting or hateful. Comments will be reviewed before being published.

Leave a Reply