In mounting a new production of Don Quixote, San Francisco Ballet was not just tilting at windmills. This is a big ballet, on a scale – although not a par – with Giselle and Swan Lake and it’s been around for about as long. It takes a big company to do it proud and, judging from audience reaction at Friday’s opening, San Francisco fills the bill admirably. But the designation of this as a world premiere is a little misleading. The actual premiere was in 1869 at the Bolshoi in Moscow. The legendary Marius Petipa choreographed to that much maligned Ludwig Minkus score. The work has undergone numerous revisions since, the first by Petipa himself and another by Alexander Gorsky some 30 years later. Those in our day include Nureyev’s for Vienna in 1966, Baryshnikov’s 1978 version for American Ballet Theatre, and, of course, this one, a revamped version of the original with staging and additional choreography by San Francisco artistic director Helgi Tomasson and principal dancer Yuri Possokhov.
In spite of all that history, the full-length Don Quixote rarely has been seen, at least in this country. Commonly seen is the final pas de deux, a showcase for soloists on mixed bills across the land and a particular favorite of Baryshnikov’s. But there are a couple of hours of dancing and story that lead up to that pas de deux and, if you can sit still for Minkus’ oompah pah all that long, Quixote definitely has its rewards, especially in the character dancing and the ensembles, often a kind of ersatz Spanish flamenco by way of Mother Russia.
With Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes wrote a big book, rambling, picaresque and indelibly burned into the American consciousness by way of Dale Wasserman’s musical Man of La Mancha. But, surprise! This is not exactly the tale you may recall. The Don is there, doddering and deluded as ever, but as more of a tangential plot device. Present too is his drunken sidekick Sancho Panza, but only briefly and for comic relief. The major characters are the village lass, Kitri, and her lover, the barber Basilio. The story, taken from Book Two of the rambling work, centers on Kitri’s father’s attempt to marry her off to a rich fop. True love, of course, triumphs in the end.
Bravura turns by the lovers are the centerpiece, framed by divertissements from the fan-fluttering, tambourine-tapping corps. The San Francisco casting is variable throughout the week long run of the piece but it is hard to imagine a more perfect pair of Spanish lovers than took the stage Friday night. Both Cuban-born and trained, it may be that Lorena Feijoo and Joan Boada simply have the right Latin temperament for this piece–or just that they are superb dancers. From the moment Feijoo enters the village square in a red dress, with a black fan and Spanish comb in her hair, she commands all attention. The high-leaping Boada is a perfect match for her. Together, they provide a visual feast of flirtatiousness and seemingly effortless technique.
The Don (Benjamin Pierce) is given more to mime as he imagines Kitri to be his beloved fantasy, Dulcinea, and Sancho (Pascal Molat), Kitri’s father (Ashley Wheater) and, especially, Damian Smith as the bumbling wealthy suitor add moments of broad comedy. The horse and donkey, which provide transportation for the knight of the woeful countenance and his squire, were remarkably well behaved.
There is an ethereal dream sequence, reminiscent of that other Petipa/Minkus collaboration, La Bayadere, that is enlivened by a pas de trois for Feijoo, a sprightly Elizabeth Miner as the lead Cupid and the elegant Muriel Maffre at her most regal. Feijoo’s dazzling pirouettes and battements and Maffre’s exquisite arabesques dazzled the audience, as well as the Don.
But the business with the windmill is given short shrift, so short that, if you blink, you might miss it, and in the gypsy camp where the lovers briefly seek refuge the music is more Hungarian than Spanish and the steps are as Russian as you please. Nevertheless, there is a gorgeous pas de deux here for the gypsy leader (Peter Brandenhoff) and his lady, (Sherri LeBlanc, who really chews up the scenery with true tsigane passion).
Whether as gypsies, matadors, townsfolk or dream spirits, the corps performed admirably and, to cap it off, there was that famous pas de deux at the very end. Don Quixote may be something of an old-fashioned historical curiosity but it’s a lot of fun to watch.