Ballet: “Don Quixote” by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

By Jane Rosenberg

There are some beguiling innovations in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s production of Don Quixote on view at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through June 26.  Rather than setting the ballet in the time period of Cervantes’s classic, we open on nineteenth century Spain, after the country’s defeat by France (and closer to the creation of the original ballet by Marius Petipa).  Villagers gather around a statue of Don Quixote and his loyal squire, eternal symbols of justice, freedom, and love, as if looking to the Don for courage and inspiration. As Don Quixote and Sancho spring to life, the greatest Spanish novel of all time and one of the treasures of world literature is evoked.  A fitting opening for the ballet: itself one of the treasures of the classic repertory.

The narrative of the ballet follows three chapters from volume two of Cervantes’s novel, which tells of the romance of Basilio and Kitri and the Don’s role in helping the couple deceive her father in order to marry for true love.  The scenes in the book almost beg to be presented as ballet, describing farmers in their holiday finery, dancing young gallants wielding swords, beautiful maidens with agile feet, nymphs led by Cupid and accompanied by timbrel and flute, and a thousand musical instruments.  Petipa and the Russian ballet master Gorky (who reworked the original for more narrative coherence) took advantage of Cervantes’s material and created a ballet full of the flavors of Spain.

The Don, however, has a minor role in the ballet proceedings; and Alicia Alonso, the revered director of the Cuban company, along with Marta Garcia and Maria Llorente, set out to rectify that fact.  Though it seemed they were off to a good start, the Don, (danced on Thursday night by Leandro Pérez) appeared more like a young man of thirty than the cantankerous, deluded, and elderly Don Quixote the world has come to love.  This was partially the result of poor costuming that evoked the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz rather than the armor of a Knight Errant, and partially from the intent of Alonso’s choreography.

But the ballet is primarily about the love of Basilio and Kitri and their struggles to avoid her arranged marriage to Camacho, a rich Spanish nobleman and a fop with distinctly French manners.  Dressed in pseudo military regalia and looking every inch the vain Commedia dell’Arte Captain from a Jacques Callot engraving, Camacho was danced with humor by Ernesto Alvarez.  Fortunately, the evening’s production rested on the capable partnership of Dani Hernandez as Basilio and Annette Delgado as Kitri.  Joyful and exuberant in their first act pairing, Hernandez’s lyrical Basilio embodied the charm of youth, while Delgado’s Kitri had a flirtatious, playful quality that made the audience take her to their hearts.

Javier Sanchez as Sancho created the broad comedy we expect to see from the chubby, always hungry squire as he thrashed his legs and flailed his arms throughout his rough handling by the villagers.  The corps de ballet was strong, vibrant, and technically secure – the synchronized jetés of the bullfighters were notable.  The only disappointment was Espada and Mercedes danced by Alfredo Ibanez and Veronica Corveas, who seemed leaden in contrast to the spirited dancing around them.

In the second act when the lovers flee Kitri’s father and her intended husband, Camacho, Basilio’s character matures as he takes responsibility for Kitri.  Hernandez proved a tender, attentive protector – no longer the rash, arrogant youth.  Delgado, too, grew in stature, turning from girl to woman.  Fiery gypsy dancing followed, growing more passionate by degrees.  With the iconic windmill in the background, Don Quixote arrives.  More than ever, one longed for the captivating quirkiness of the timeless Don of the novel rather than the ennobled and somewhat stilted portrayal on view here.

After Don Quixote’s battle with the windmill, he collapses.  A beautiful rendering of his hallucination follows as another Don rises behind the sleeping Don and enters a dream world populated by Love and her nymphs.  Corps and soloists delighted the audience with their agile footwork and flowing line.  The merging of Dulcinea and Kitri in the Don’s mind as they dance back to back, is another innovation of this production that added dimension to Dulcinea as muse and Kitri as ennobled by her maturing love for Basilio.

The third act, set at the lavish outdoor wedding of Kitri and Camacho results in the tricking of Camacho by Basilio’s feigned suicide and the resulting marriage of the young lovers.  After this comedic event, executed with flair by Hernandez, the famed Act Three Pas de Deux begins, with its breathtaking choreography of fouettés and pirouettes that was handled admirably by our principals.

The orchestra, conducted by Giovanni Duarte, gave ample life to Minkus’s bouncy score: a blend of rollicking theatrics, Spanish rhythms, and lovely adagio passages.  The sets and costumes lacked the big budget lavishness of many productions, but conveyed the scenes through a muted abstraction.  One wished that the costumes for the corps went for a similar simplicity rather than an overabundance of ruffles and bows, which distracted from the dancing.

Characterizing the production, I ultimately felt it favored the acrobatic over the poetic.  Though the audience at the Dorothy Chandler seemed to revel in the circus act flavor of the evening, those rare glimmers of poetry could have been expanded to enhance the narrative flow of the ballet and draw us more completely into Cervantes’s world and the powerful lyricism of dance. Let us hope, however, with Alonso in her 90th year, the Ballet Nacional will continue to turn out the many wonderful Cuban dancers who join the ranks of ballet companies the world over.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales from the Classic Ballets and SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.

Illustrations ©1985 by Jane Rosenberg.

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