David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; July 22, 2014
What impresses most about the version of “Don Quixote” that the Bolshoi Ballet unveiled last night during its two week series of Lincoln Center Festival performances is its choreographic focus on ballerinas. While this may not seem so unusual – after all, the lead character in most Romantic and Classical ballets is female – I can think of few ballet productions that are so overwhelmingly ballerina-oriented. And last night, the Bolshoi ballerinas, particularly its corps dancers and young soloists of varying rank, delivered.
Most current productions of “Don Quixote” derive from the Alexander Gorsky restaging of Marius Petipa’s ‘original’ (there were antecedent incarnations) for the Bolshoi in 1900. It was this, in a “new choreographic version” by the Bolshoi’s former Artistic Director Alexei Fadeyechev that had its first performance of this season at the DHK Theater on July 22.
There is no indication of how, if at all, Mr. Fadeyechev’s staging may have changed the basic Petipa/Gorsky choreography. Regardless of its genesis, this production is less coherent than that previously choreographed for American Ballet Theatre in 1980 by Mikhail Baryshnikov, or even ABT’s current and somewhat inferior production. For example, the visit to the gypsy encampment is not told within the context of the overall story, but is a separate stand-alone sequence (Kitri and Basilio are not present), which clearly provides cover for grafting a little classical-looking ballet onto the base story (and the dubious opportunity for a commedia dell’arte-like ‘puppet show’ that makes the Don go bonkers and leads to his ‘dream’). And Kitri’s wedding somehow becomes a royal celebration, held among garishly costumed nobles (they may resemble costumes worn by nobles in paintings by Velasquez, but they’re still garish) – the product of a casual meeting between Don Quixote, recovering from his delusional dream, and a duke and duchess and their retinue out for an afternoon’s stroll in the woods. During this encounter these nobles presumably invite Don Q to invite Kitri and Basilio, who aren’t even there, to celebrate their wedding at the castle. Maybe the castle had a larger dance floor than the tavern or the town square, or perhaps the duke and duchess gave the Don a catering discount.
But logical staging aside, far aside, this “Don Quixote”, premiered in 1999, includes dance segments that either were deleted in the ABT productions or were added subsequently, which translates into more dancing overall, and more quality choreography for ballerinas than in other productions that I’ve seen. Aside from seven featured Dryad dancers (which of course are female), there are seventeen characters identified in the program who have dancing roles. Of these, fourteen are women, and although most of these are ‘featured’, as opposed to ‘lead’, roles they provide significant opportunities to gauge the ability of the Bolshoi ballerinas below principal level.
Kitri and Basilio, were performed by Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov (the ‘Evil Genius’ in last week’s “Swan Lake”). Mr. Landratov, who joined the company in 2006, danced Basilio with youthful vigor, and proved to be excellent both as a partner (powerful and controlled overhead lifts, for example) and individually (electrifying turns that he did without unnecessary self-congratulatory flourish). My only criticism is that he played Basilio without any particular character – he was neither the clownish underachiever, nor the cocky, party-animal playboy, both of which types I’ve seen, and to me there was little stage chemistry between him and his Kitri. He was simply, and excellently, a hyperactive young man who happened to be a really good dancer.
Ms. Alexandrova’s performance was more problematic. I understand that she recently recovered from a serious injury, which may have limited her jumping ability (her Plisetskaya leaps, for example, were mediocre). But technically she was more than adequate, particularly in the final act pas de deux, with scintillating piqué and fouettés turns. But where Kitri is supposed to be a spitfire, a feisty Spanish coquette, Ms. Alexandrova came across as a feisty Spanish cougar. Even discounting the age difference (which really isn’t all that unusual or crippling for the role), she played Kitri with pasted-on flourish. Every final pose was accompanied by either a cocking of her head or an open-mouthed gape that didn’t so much say ‘I’m an irresistible party girl’ as ‘look what I just did’. This made her portrayal look both old-fashioned and forced, and makes Kitri a character whose skills one can admire, rather than a character one can emotionally connect with.
Espada was danced by Denis Rodkin as a deadpan, cardboard character. But even with his relative stiffness (which comes with the choreography) he played the role with unusual vibrancy. To me, he resembles Patrick Bissell, who performed the role in Baryshnikov’s ABT production. And although his performance did not include any of the creative nuances that Jared Matthews recently brought to the role with ABT, Mr. Rodkin handled his cape expertly (not an easy task), and executed the toreador-inspired steps with appropriate (and believable) gusto.
But as finely performed as Mr. Rodkin was as Espada, he was overshadowed by his two companions: Mercedes, portrayed by Oxana Sharova (still only a member of the corps), and a ‘street dancer’, played by Anna Tikhomirova, one of many ballerina soloists of various levels who shone. Both danced with sultry sizzle, but Ms. Sharova was particularly ablaze. In ABT’s production, Kitri’s friends are dubbed ‘Flower Girls’. Here, they’re given names, Juanita and Piccilia, as well as more dancing. Played by Yanina Parienko and Anna Rebetskaya, they were the first act’s spark plugs.
In Act II, the initial scene takes place in a Spanish tavern followed by Don Quixote’s field trip to the gypsy encampment. The other way around – the tavern scene following the gypsy encampment scene and the ‘dream’ scene, as in the ABT version, makes more sense. But in ABT’s production, the gypsy dances themselves are more limited in scope, and primarily assigned to men (perhaps to level the dancing playing field). Here, the character of the Gypsy Woman is the heart of the scene, living, through her dance, an entire story in the course of her solo. As a result, the scene is more than just a sequence of character dancing. And the performance by Kristina Karasyova was extraordinary. Every part of her body was filled with passion. Her fiery dancing fused perfectly with her profoundly moving characterization, and her performance was alone worth the price of admission.
The tavern scene itself includes an interesting dance that’s not in the ABT version. Intended to be a ‘typical’ dance that a tavern might provide to entertain its customers, it’s one of those significant dancing ‘asides’ that adds essential character and depth to a scene. I dubbed it a ‘castanet’ dance because the lead dancer utilizes them in the course of her dance (she actually plays them as she dances). But the program describes her simply as a ‘Spanish’ dancer, accompanied by a pair of accompanying ‘Guitar’ dancers. However they’re identified, as danced by Maria Zharkova, and Nino Asatiani and Vera Borisenkova, all members of the corps, the dance was wonderful, and Ms. Zharkova smoldered.
Also unlike the current ABT version, in this production the Dryad Queen is danced by a different dancer from the one who portrays Mercedes. Last night, it was performed by Olga Smirnova, and even though I still noticed a somewhat corkscrewed torso (similar to her ‘style’ as Nikiya in her guest appearance with ABT several weeks ago), it was the finest performance I’ve seen her give to date. She was consistently pitch-perfect (and much faster and more on-the-music than Ms. Alexandrova when they appeared on stage together). The dream scene’s Cupid, Yulia Lunkina, danced with finesse, but the role here is played relatively straight, without the ‘cuteness’ that is inherent in the ABT conception. To me, without this quality, an essential component of the role is lost, but that’s not Ms. Lunkina’s doing.
In the final Act, Kitri’s Wedding, Maria Vinogradova and Ana Turazashvili danced the variations within the main pas de deux magnificently, with Ms. Vinogradova, who also was featured last week in “Swan Lake”, continuing to impress with the clarity of her execution and her spirited presence.
Of all the added or expanded roles, the only one that was somewhat disappointing was also the only one that added another male dancer. In the final Act, an added duet called ‘Bolero’ was danced satisfactorily by Anna Antropova and Vitaly Biktimirov, but the dance itself is forgettable.
In addition to those with featured roles, there were several ballerinas who performed as villagers (they’re not specifically identified as dancing the seguidillas, as in the ABT production) or Dryads, who danced with particular verve and who brightened the stage (or in one case, a ‘drinking table’ at the tavern). But none were identified in the program.
The Bolshoi’s next New York production is “Spartacus”. Perhaps the female-centric “Don Quixote” was intended to immunize audiences against the testosterone-laden ballet to come. Regardless, and even though it’s not thematically as ‘tight’ as the ABT version, the increased dancing showcases the Bolshoi’s many talented ballerinas at all levels of rank. I look forward to future opportunities to see these dancers grow.