She has become a powerful symbol of female sexuality: the wild gypsy woman whose beauty captivates a simple soldier and whose evasion drives him to an act of violence. The character of Carmen dates back to 1845, when French writer Prosper Mérimée made her the subject of a novella. Yet it wasn’t until 30 years later, when composer Georges Bizet wrote an opera based on the story, that Carmen was catapulted into stardom.
This Saturday, April 5, State Street Ballet (SSB) revisits a ballet based on this dramatic tale of desire, betrayal, and jealous revenge. The company first staged William Soleau’s evening-length production of Carmen in Santa Barbara in 2007. For the principal role that year, Soleau and SSB artistic director Rodney Gustafson chose Leila Drake, then a relatively new member of the company.
“It’s hard to take a big chance on someone who hasn’t ever danced the lead,” Drake observed in a recent phone interview. “Sometimes you need someone to take a chance on you.”
It was a risk that paid off. Drake is now a principal dancer with SSB and has gone on to dance the lead in numerous Soleau ballets, including American Tango, Appalachian Spring, and Love, Love, Love. “I don’t tend to play the Sugar Plum Fairy,” Drake joked, alluding to the fact that she gravitates toward more contemporary and dramatic roles.
Seven years after stepping into her first lead role, Drake prepares to take the stage once again as Carmen. Much has changed in her life in the intervening years, and her perspective on the storied seductress has shifted.
“Carmen is obviously this wild, untamed, earthly human,” Drake noted, “and I want to treat her with a lot of respect. I actually see her as a symbol of female empowerment and independence. She makes her own decisions. She’s in control of everything, which I think is partly a defense mechanism.”
The character of Carmen is typically seen as a seductress with a lack of regard for the men who fall helpless before her, yet Drake and Soleau aim to bring a more nuanced interpretation to the role. “Bill wants her to be a little more vulnerable and relatable — not just a haughty flirt who seduces and destroys,” Drake explained.
Of course, bringing psychological depth to such a role is a true challenge and one Drake relishes as separate from the technical demands. “We are wearing pointe shoes, and we have to use all of the technique we’re worked hard to develop, but so much of this role is character-driven,” she explained. “I think a lot about the direction of my eyes, the angle of my back, and what my shoulders are doing.”
Joining Drake onstage in the role of the jealous soldier Don José will be Ryan Camou. Former Joffrey and Houston Ballet member Randy Herrera will dance the role of the Toreador who steals Carmen’s affections.
One of the biggest differences for Drake between her first time playing Carmen and her current role is the fact that she is now married.
“Seven years ago, I was single and a lot more wild,” she said. “It was easier for me to tap into that gypsy fire. As we began rehearsals this time, it just wasn’t the same.” Yet rather than become discouraged by these changes, Drake has tried to use them to her advantage.
“Hopefully, I’m more mature and settled in my own life, so I can be more vulnerable onstage,” she said. “I married the love of my life, and our life together feels simple and happy and comfortable. So I can really dive into this drama and intensity with total abandon.”
State Street Ballet presents Carmen one night only at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Saturday, April 5, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org. For more on the company, visit statestreetballet.com.