ABT: ¿DonQué?

25 May

After listening to a Tchaikovsky ballet score, it’s hard to listen to Minkus. After watching a MacMillan story unfold, Petipa becomes unbearable. After delighting in the humor of Ashton, all other comedy pales in comparison…and there’s only one ballet that can assemble the worst of the above statements into one hideous beast—Don Quixote. On the one hand, it’s quite an entertaining ballet and has a tendency to appeal to the more casual ballet-goer, somebody who knows enough to see something that is not The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, but on the other hand, it’s nonsensical and lacking in substance. I avoid DonQ like the plague because of my terribly short attention span and the fact that listening to the music is like being stuck on a carousel of nightmares for two-and-a-half hours, not to mention the story (like all Imperial ballets) is too far removed from a legitimate narrative to serve a meaningful purpose. The tie-in of Cervantes’s novel is the thinnest of threads with none of the philosophical outlook on romanticism, and the events from the novel depicted only occur in Act II—which also happens to be the one act I could do without. But then what would we call it?

Still, even I must concede that DonQ once held great appeal to me. I went as far as to buy the soundtrack—while some may be embarrassed (or not) to say they purchased CDs of bygone boy bands and defunct pop stars, I can credit DonQ to my former library of music. It was cute at first and the lightheartedness was a welcome contrast to the tragedy that befalls the protagonists of most story ballets. Here was a ballet where nobody died (permanently), and dancers had free license to be as charismatic as they wanted. Modern productions have become increasingly virtuosic, with more pirouettes and explosive jumps than ever before and American Ballet Theatre’s production, staged by artistic director Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones is…not too bad (that’s a compliment). To be honest, the inclusion of more bravura steps for the corps—particularly the men—was the only choice I questioned. It’s always an issue of contrast and shaping a narrative, to remember that there was once a time when not every male dancer could do the difficult steps, which is why there was such a thing as a principal role. I understand the desire and eagerness to highlight the talents of soloists and the corps, but not so far as to compromise the prestige of the leading man. It’s a fine line, but it was a bit much during scenes when the main couple of Kitri and Basilio encountered the toreadors and the gypsy camp. However, I was fascinated when as the toreadors performed a single move of their choosing, one by one reeling off countless pirouettes or another tour de force maneuver, while Joseph Gorak elected to a single turn in attitude. I applaud his decision to do something simple and elegant, and his attitude position is uncannily square (really, it’s almost alien).

It’s worth mentioning that this shift in technical feats is largely one sided though. The scenes for the corps de ballet of women and various solos are sometimes restored from notation fragments or simply the result of what’s been passed down (and often changed) from previous generations, such that the women of the corps de ballet have not enjoyed the same amount of liberation in terms of breaking free from the classical rules. They still have to perform the same choreography as it’s been done for decades now, and certainly don’t get to show off as much. To have other dancers do fouettés before Kitri’s coda would be a faux pas, but choreography for men is approached with more vanity and the stage becomes a competitive arena. That being said, it’s not much of a problem for Herman Cornejo when he dances Basilio because he’s one of the finest dancers in the world. The scary thing about his pirouettes for example, is that he has options—he can do five, six, seven pirouettes with incredible consistency and the best part is how he finishes them, always managing to freeze on demi-pointe before moving on. What’s also wonderful about it is that he never indulges an outstanding pirouette if it means finishing behind the music, even when he could easily keep going. Ironically, some audience members probably had no idea it was his choice to end some of those buttery turns, as the constant stream of whispered numbers indicated that they were counting—which makes me heave a sigh in exasperation, but even for those of us who champion subtlety, it’s as one of my teachers said: “You go to DonQ, and you have to hate yourself a little for being amazed at the ridiculous number of pirouettes that happen.” And she’s right—just because everybody knows it’s hard it doesn’t make it easy.

Cornejo’s solo work was obviously impeccable—thrilling without any sign of exertion, and magnificently volitant. His partnering of Xiomara Reyes was also perfect, and Reyes brought an infectious charm on top of technically brilliant dancing. As a Cuban, Reyes was practically born dancing DonQ—it’s a huge goal in their training to be able to dance this ballet. Reyes had outstanding balances in arabesque, speediness in jumps and footwork, and of course dazzling turns during the coda, somehow managing to manipulate a fan as she turned her fouettés, a popular showboating move amongst today’s leading ballerinas and absolutely as hard—or harder—than it looks. Saucy and flirtatious, Reyes just has the “it” factor as Kitri, and with Cornejo, they’re a tremendous amount of fun to watch. They brought merriment and theatricality, with a surplus of aplomb. The occasion was made all the more special in celebrating the ten-year anniversary of their tenure as principal dancers with ABT, complete with a standing ovation and confetti cannons. I’d say one would be hard pressed to go any bigger than that for a DonQ, but I fear the results if I were to be wrong…

Though I prefer subtler humor than slapstick, as a whole, ABT dances DonQ incredibly well. As Gamache, Craig Salstein was hysterical, gifted with the best comedic timing of any dancer I’ve ever seen. He really gets it, and it’s a gift as rarefied and maybe more than a freakish center for turns, a huge jump, beautiful feet, or what have you. When I espied him off to the side during one of the wedding divertissements, tapping his foot and imitating the steps in character (or perhaps, for his own entertainment), and I wished a genuine comedic intelligence could be celebrated in a way that was less farcical on the surface, and more respectable in terms of dancing a principal role (e.g., Colas in La fille mal gardée). The whole cast was wonderful though—Hee Seo continued to impress me with her radiance in the roles of Mercedes and the Queen of the Dryads, and Alexandre Hammoudi presented himself as a dashing Espada, the matador. Contrary to popular belief, I’m fully willing to admit that I even had like, eighty-five percent fun seeing ABT in DonQ, and only yawned once during the vision scene. I’m not pining away to see another DonQ anytime soon, but at the very least, the energy from the dancers and the audience’s appreciation thereof was certainly contagious. Still, I think it’s fair to say that after torturing myself with watching DonQ a grand total of two times, I’ve feel like I’ve filled my “DonQuota” for life—right?

One Response to “ABT: ¿DonQué?”

  1. avesraggiana June 8, 2013 at 7:04 am #

    You thought the Minkus music for Don Q was bad? Try the oom-pah-pah, beer garden tunes in La Bayadere! Especially Gamzatti’s wedding and the three shades variations! Talk about banal, but oh so eminently danceable. I’ve sat through full-length Petipa-Minkus ballets, with true music aficionados as my seat-mates, literally cringing and sinking into my seat in chagrin.

    I’ve seen two live productions of Don Q, and I liked them both for quite different reasons: ABT with Cynthia Gregory and Kevin McKenzie, and the Bolshoi with Nina Ananiashvili and Andrei Uvarov. You’re absolutely correct and I would take your statement even further. The ABT does Don Q incredibly well and not only that, they do humour incredibly well too! At least for American tastes, ABT puts over the slapstick mime with such gusto, almost teetering into mugging, but Don Q is such a silly piece of Russo-Hispanolerie that the over-the-top antics are justified. I’m not even talking about Gregory and McKenzie, who had just adequate comic timing skills, (Cynthia Harvey in the video performance with Baryshnikov was a far wittier and funnier Kitri), but all the side characters – Kitri’s fishmonger father who manages to whack Gamache on the ear with a fish, the village woman trying to get the attention of the doltish Gamache, and so on. Almost everywhere you look there’s a piece of comic business going on somewhere.

    The Bolshoi don’t do humour and slapstick very well at all. The bits where Kitri flirts with Basilio in their PDD are danced, and danced with exacting precision, rather than acted, and even the scene where Basilio fakes his death is something to be gotten through with tedium, rather than truly enjoyed. Where the Bolshoi really brought the house down was in the gypsy encampment scenes. They really take this stuff very seriously, and my goodness, do they put it over! My outstanding memory of the Bolshoi Don Q is this long, hypnotising, bolero-like number performed by a lady gypsy soloist, with repeated, slow backbends on her knees, sinuous arms, serpentine backbends…nothing technically difficult, but performed with such overpowering theatrical conviction that we the audience, could not help but be drawn in. The soloist won a well-deserved, long and enthusiastic ovation at the end.

    The Bolshoi must specialise in this Russo-Spanish-bolero-style of character dancing because I have not seen this exact solo in video recordings by other Russian companies, not even the Maryinsky. The whole thing is rampantly bogus of course, and yet you can’t help but be impressed with how wholeheartedly the Russians throw themselves into the stylistic nonsense that is Don Q. Don Quixote the ballet, is a uniquely Russian vision of Spain, in the same way Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a uniquely English vision of Verona. Both are visions of a world that don’t really exist, and have never existed, and ironically, it’s the reason why only the English can really do Italian Shakespeare, and why only the Russians “can do” Don Quixote.

    As much as I enjoyed ABT’s Don Q for the comedy, I really can’t say that I could enjoy another non-Russian company’s production of Don Q. Something would always seem missing to me, somehow a little off, probably because they don’t have this “thing”, this Russo-Hispanic style of dancing that only Russians can do, and do so well.

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