Northern Jubilee Auditorium, Edmonton, AB; October 3, 2014

Kate Snedeker

In recent years, the Alberta Ballet has been acquiring a number of full-length classical productions, including ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Giselle’, to a mostly high degree of success. The company’s latest acquisition, ‘Don Quixote’, made its Edmonton debut on a brisk fall evening to an enthusiastic audience. Originally created for the Houston Ballet in 1995, presumably to showcase a young Cuban phenom by the name of Carlos Acosta, Ben Stevenson’s production is a rollicking adaptation of the original Petipa/Gorsky ‘Don Quixote’. Nearly twenty years later, the production has found a wonderful new home in the Alberta Ballet, and two excellent new Cuban leads in Hayna Guiterrez and Jaciel Gomez.

Despite the title, the ballet ‘Don Quixote’ focuses primarily on the comic romantic travails of the young Spanish lovers Basilio and Kitri, with Cervantes’ Don playing a relatively minor role in the plot. The production begins with a glimpse into the dreams and desires of the Don, played on Friday with comic tenderness by company director Jean Grand-Maître in his return to the stage after a nearly 20-year absence. Stevenson chooses to make both the Don and his sidekick Sancho Panza (Ian Buchanan) heavily comic characters. Certainly there is very little to take seriously in any ‘Don Quixote’, but this reviewer missed the gentle pathos of productions that take a more tragic-comic approach the Don. There is something sad about a man chasing an unobtainable dream woman, but who yet helps another couple make their romance a reality.

In the hands of the Alberta Ballet, the production was more about energetic, good-natured fun than flashy balletic pyrotechnics. Thomas Boyd’s sets provided a suitable backdrop for the dance without overcrowding the stage, but Judanna Lynn’s costumes tended towards relatively muted colors in styles that were more generic than strongly Spanish. Kitri’s pinkish wedding tutu, nearly the same color as the corps dresses, in particular, called out for a more vivid red hue.

As Basilio, Jaciel Gomez seemed to go from strength to strength. Since joining the Alberta Ballet nearly three years ago, he has continued to develop into an endearing character dancer with technique to burn. He is a lanky dancer, with exquisite control in his pirouettes if not the fastest or most spectacular ménage. What he lacks in breathtaking hang time or snap, he makes up in beautifully extended legs and attention to detail. Where Gomez truly excelled, though, was in bringing to life the youthful cheekiness of Basilio.

In Hayna Guiterrez, the company could not have found a more perfect Kitri. There is nothing Guiterrez seems incapable of doing – she excelled in the fiery pas de deux, the acting and the very delicate solos of the Enchantment Grotto. Among the highlights was her Act II solo with a series of crisp, yet delicate footwork, and her all-out series of single, double and a triple fouettes at the apex of the Act III wedding pas de deux. Their partnership seems relaxed, with Gomez providing solid support for Guiterrez in the preparations for her balances. The partnering pyrotechnics seems scaled down from some productions (no one-handed ‘butt lifts’), but they elicited gasps for Guiterrez’s fearless leaps into the flying fish dives. One fish dive appeared very under-rotated, but Gomez managed to salvage the lift without any ill consequences.

It seems a shame that Yukichi Hattori was relegated to relatively minor or unsatisfying roles, but it pleasing that the company kept to type in the casting of Espada. Senior company dancer Kelly McKinlay, who was double cast as the Gypsy Chief, follows in the footsteps of experienced taller male dancers who have played the role including American Ballet Theatre’s Marcelo Gomes and the Royal Danish Ballet’s Mads Blangstrup. It was disappointing that the role has been watered down, but McKinlay pulled off Espada’s swagger to a T. Oddly the program does not give his female counterpart a name (she is usually Mercedes), but Alison Dubsky deserves a mention for her performance.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, given the departure of several company stalwarts in the last couple years and an influx of new talent, the male corps seemed weaker than the female corps. While there were strong sections in all three acts, steps tended to be rushed or even sketched out during the faster sections. The female corps, however, was gorgeous in the Enchantment Grotto scene – the results of excellent and extensive coaching were clearly evident in the uniformity and elegance of hand positions, leg height and musical phrasing. As a whole, the corps was strongest in the Gypsy dance, but delightfully enthusiastic in the final scene.

Kudos also the wonderfully trained horse in Act 1 and 3 who actually seemed disappointed to leave the stage, and to Blair Puente’s foppish Gamache. If anything could be put on a ‘Don Quixote’ wish list, it would be funding for a live orchestra. If there is any ballet that calls for on the spot improvisation or pushing the limits, it’s Don Q and the dancers can’t do that when they are bound by an unchangeable taped soundtrack.

As a note, the Edmonton casting, albeit only for two performances, is a bit worrying in the number of roles covered only by a single dancer and the number of double casting within the performance. For the run, there seems only to be on Kitri and two Basilios, with the company relying on an 18-year old guest artist to dance one performance of Basilio in Calgary. And the Basilios also dance the role of Lorenzo in the other performances, as well as Espada and the Gypsy Chief being played by one dancer in all performances, and number of roles covered by non current dancers. This does not appear to reflect well on the company’s ability to cast technically challenging roles, especially on the female side. While there certainly must be covers for all roles, it felt like one or two poorly timed injuries could cause serious issues for the production. It is wonderful to get excellent new productions, but they need to be within comfortable limits for the company – and the company needs to focus on developing new principal level talent.