Schimmel Center at Pace University, New York, NY; May 15, 2015

Jerry Hochman

A few years after Gelsey Kirkland joined the company, American Ballet Theatre premiered Mikhail Baryshnikov’s version of Don Quixote. I recall vividly the company’s first performance of the ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House, and smiling ear to ear throughout. I doubt that US audiences had ever previously seen the non-stop vitality of that 1978 production. Unfortunately, they have not seen it since.

Kirkland was ABT’s first Kitri. Nearly forty years later, the ballet company that bears her name has now presented its first version of Don Quixote. I’d hoped that Gelsey Kirkland Ballet would in some way rekindle memories of that production and the magic of her performance. It did. I smiled ear to ear throughout.

The GK Ballet production (which is after those of Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky, and directed by Michael Chernov, Kirkland’s husband and GK Ballet’s Co-Artistic Director) includes some portions that the Baryshnikov version deleted, including the prologue, which here begins directly with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in the reality-challenged knight’s ‘library’, rather than in Cervantes’s study, and some Act III variations. I also don’t doubt that some of the ensemble dances have been modified to fit the relatively narrow Schimmel Center stage and a smaller company of dancers, and that some individual bravura highlights (for example, there was no one-arm overhead lift in this performance) were adjusted to meet these dancers’ capabilities.

But the nuts and bolts don’t matter nearly as much as the thrill of watching a finely staged production matched with a highly capable and well-rehearsed group of dancers (a GK Ballet hallmark) whose enthusiasm is contagious. And the leads were fabulous.

Dawn Gierling tends to dance with a relatively flat affect, and I was concerned that her Kitri (she alternated performances with Anastasia Barsukova) would not measure up to what the role requires. But she rose, and danced, to the occasion. From the first minute that she roared onstage like a tornado, she was in character and in control. I remember clearly Kirkland’s entrance as Kitri; this was in the same mold, with ‘head kicks’ (‘Plisetskaya leaps’) from the first entrance, and dancing that was both furiously flamboyant and almost non-stop. And before one thinks ‘well, they all do that’ – they don’t.

Gierling’s Act II ‘dream scene’ was not as strong as her scenes as Kitri, but her dancing there was more than adequate. And in the Act III pas de deux, she included the Russian variation rather than the pas de cheval that I adored when Kirkland danced the role, but that’s not wrong. What is important is that she displayed abundant technical ability, portrayed the essential character of Kitri, and transmitted that characterization with the necessary energy and charisma to make her character believable. It was a super performance.

Her Basilio, Erez Ben-Zion Milatin, is small in stature, but he’s fiery and fun to watch, with energy resources that defy logic. When he danced on his own, he did a superior job, and his partnering, most of the time, was surprisingly strong. He had a more difficult time when Gierling ran into partnering position (as opposed to turning on point while otherwise stationary) – she appeared to push him off position, and he couldn’t keep her straight a couple of times – but she is taller than Nicole Assaad, who has been his regular partner within the company, so it’s somewhat miraculous that he was able to partner Gierling as well as he did – including throughout the Act III pas de deux. And although those one-hand overhead lifts weren’t there, there were plenty of partnering gems to replace it, including a couple of sequences in which he threw Gierling straight up in front of him, let go, caught her on the way back down, and in the process converted the action into a fish dive of sorts – which required as much skill and intelligent execution as brute strength. He also handled the acting that his role requires very well, and his comic timing was pitch-perfect. The previous night at the ballet’s premiere, Milatin played Gamache, and I overheard many in the audience marveling at his ability to handle both roles so well.

Anderson Souza, who played Basilio at one of the other performances, danced Espada. He was impressive as well, and portrayed the matador with the authority and presence of one with considerable more experience. Katrina Crawford performed the Street Dancer (Mercedes in other productions) with appropriate skill – clearly communicating the combination of sensuality and detachment appropriate for the role. The Flower Girls, India Rose and Natalia Sheptalova, both delivered fine performances, with Sheptalova showing particular flair and an engaging, non-plastic smile. And Johnny Almeida, who danced Basilio at two performances, was wonderfully out of character as Gamache.

In the Act II Gypsy Camp scene, the bulk of the dancing is borne by a woman (the Gypsy Soloist) rather than by Basilio or a Gypsy man. Sabina Alvarez executed this dance of emotional turmoil with remarkable intensity, although it goes on a bit too long. And in the Dream Scene, Nina Yoshida’s Amour was delivered crisply and with legs flying, but with a bit less cuteness than in other portrayals. Nagi Wakisaka was an appropriately imperious Dryad Queen.

The men and women who danced the Sequidilla and the Blindfold Dance (with a somewhat humorously salacious Marcus Salazar as Sancho Panza) in Act I; the Gypsy and Dryad demi-soloists and corps, and the Amourchiks in Act II; and the supporting dancers in Act III’s Wedding Scene, all performed well.

I was particularly impressed with the ensemble staging (done by committee), which always looked visually interesting above and beyond the skill of the dancers executing it. My one complaint (actually, two) is the stiffness of the corps surrounding the action in the tavern scene, with everyone raising their cups in salute at the same time, but otherwise just sitting or standing like mannequins. It’s the way the scene is handled in the two recent Russian versions I attended, but authenticity doesn’t make the scene look good; it just makes it look old-fashioned. Considering the inventiveness of the rest of the production, this could have been handled better. And perhaps there was a fire sale on silver-colored tankards – it seemed that everyone involved in the tavern scene, not just Basilio, tossed one into the air. After a while, it became a schtick, and was no longer funny. Coincidentally, perhaps, the ‘knives’ that the toreadors usually stab into the stage floor and around which the Street Dancer meanders in Act I were replaced by…tankards.

Contributing mightily to the success of this production were the sets by Court Watson, the outstanding costumes, including gorgeous individually-colored pastel leotards and tutus for the supporting women during the wedding scene (bridesmaid outfits with class), designed by Chernov and further credited to six women, and the lighting, by Christopher Chambers. It’s unfortunate that the delightfully designed town square doubled as the tavern in Act II (I suppose it was an outdoor tavern), and that the colorful translucent curtain permitted a viewer to see the dancers take their positions before they were supposed to, but those are minor quibbles in what was an extraordinarily colorful staging.

GK Ballet’s Don Quixote has no right to be as good as it is. No one should expect the dancers, recruited from around the world (as well as from the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Ballet) to perform at the level of dancers with major companies (landings may not be as secure, for instance; transitions are obvious, and there’s more extraneous body movement than one might see at the Met), and they don’t. Yet. Nor does the production have the bells and whistles of productions by companies with deeper pockets.

But that doesn’t matter. In many ways, this Don Quixote is superior to others – including the current version by ABT – because it’s alive, and the company’s enthusiasm for it, perhaps arising from Kirkland’s connection to it, is contagious. If you expect ‘perfection’, whatever that is, look elsewhere. But if you look forward to being energized and to smiling throughout the performance, this production is one to see. Unfortunately, GK Ballet has already concluded its run of the ballet, but I suspect it will be performed again, and if so, it should be seen – particularly if you prefer to get visually involved in the production rather than just watch it go by

The company and the school, will be moving from Manhattan to DUMBO in Brooklyn next fall. The move appears to be an intelligent one, and one that could lead to GK Ballet becoming Brooklyn’s primary classical ballet company. When it first started, there were question marks about how long it would last (and even the reasons behind it), but every company has to start somewhere. Based on its performance track record – and if it can continue to attract and develop new talent – it looks like GK Ballet may be here to stay.