Academy of Music
October 13, 2019
Three and a half years ago when Pennsylvania Ballet first presented Angel Corella’s staging of Don Quixote (after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov), the world was a very different place, as was the company to some extent. March 2016 was Corella’s first staging of a full-length ballet as the company’s new Artistic Director, and a few short months later, Pennsylvania Ballet would undergo a turning point of sorts when forty percent of their roster at that time would take their final bows at the end of the 2015-2016 season. In the years since then, time and time again, program after program, Pennsylvania Ballet’s renewed energy and fresh talent has reignited the excitement for ballet in Philadelphia. Opening the 2019-2020 season this month with Corella’s Don Quixote, the talents on stage are more familiar now, but the company’s ability to entertain, astonish, and amaze has not diminished, as evidenced by the audience’s reaction to this afternoon’s performance.
After a brief prologue introducing Don Quixote (portrayed by Charles Askegard), his trusty sidekick Sancho Panza (Peter Weil), and a ghostly vision of his true love, Dulcinea, who inspires the quest for adventure, the scrim rises on a town square in La Mancha with beautiful stone facades and lively villagers. Our first view of Kitri, danced this afternoon by the petite Kathryn Manger, was the embodiment of youthful exuberance, dancing joyfully though somewhat cautiously in her opening solo. Albert Gordon was a rosy-cheeked and boyish Basilio, full of masculine swagger from his first step onto the stage. Opposite Gordon, Manger was a bit more playful and seemed to relax into the role.
The corps was led by Flower Girls Jacqueline Callahan and Nayara Lopes, who set the tone with lively energy as the scene opened, and in particular, the men’s corps brandishing tambourines matched their vivacity and demonstrated impressive synchrony even at breakneck tempos. Sydney Dolan as Mercedes was sultry and graceful, weaving bourées daintily through a row of beer mugs, opposite Aleksey Babayev as Espada, who made his cape work and foot work in Act I look easy with flair and panache.
Russell Ducker as Gamache nearly stole Act I with his physical comedy. His amusing antics with Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and Kitri’s father Lorenzo (played by Jon Martin) moved the storyline forward and drew laughter from the crowd. Laughter mixed with gasps of astonishment as Gordon fired off apparently effortless quadruple and quintuple pirouettes, seemingly out of nowhere, and executed double tours with razor-like precision. Toward the end of Act I, Manger danced Kitri with more intensity in her solos, whipping through a series of fiery pirouettes. Together the pair needed a bit more control – the classic high lift into the deep dive could have been held a touch longer each time – but as the curtain dropped before the first intermission, the audience could not contain its enjoyment. While the ensemble danced in animated synchrony; Sancho Panza could be spotted being tossed into the air upstage, props flying; and the audience’s laughter, cheers, and applause all mixed together, as a woman seated across the aisle exclaimed, “This is the best!”
After a much-needed break for both the dancers and the audience to catch their breath, Act II moved the story to a Gypsy Camp, minimally but beautifully decorated with an enormous windmill, boulders, and a large campfire set against a dark sky sparkling with stars. Guest musicians seated on stage, Patricio Acevedo on guitar and Arturo Stable on cajon, performed with the orchestra (conducted by Beatrice Jona Affron), giving the scene an authentic touch. Thayz Golz danced a flowing, passionate solo, her loose dark hair flowing with her movements, and Ashton Roxander led the corps of men, filling the stage with athletic leaps and acrobatics. Even amidst the action, the humor subtly continued – Sancho Panza positioned near the end of a diagonal row of gypsy men, mimicked their actions when the sequence of movement seemed to reach his turn. Once again, chuckles from the audience turned into gasps when Gordon returned with a seemingly physics-conquering (if not defying) series of open fouettés and pirouettes.
The lovely women’s corps filled Don Quixote’s dream with delicate bourrees and graceful poses, led regally by Alexandra Hughes as the Queen of the Dryads – who uncharacteristically had to visibly power through the challenging developpe développé devant – attitude derrière sequence at the end of the Queen’s variation. Emily Davis as Amor fluttered about daintily like a hummingbird, her feet seeming to move in double-time. The Dream is where Manger seemed to truly come into her own, finding her balance in wonderfully controlled poses, conquering the sequence of hops en pointe on the diagonal with natural steadiness, and slaying the piqué turns taking a circular route crossing the stage at whirlwind speed.
Act III is the icing on the cake for this production, where both the comedic skills and the superhuman athletic abilities of the company are on full display. Gordon plays the faking of Basilio’s death perfectly – starting with an audaciously mischievous raise of his eyebrows while looking directly into the audience, and ending with a perfectly melodramatic suicide. Manger’s Kitri is now more confident and coy, and Askegard’s Don Quixote, Weil’s Sancho Panza, Martin’s Lorenzo, and especially Ducker’s Gamache continued to delight the audience with their antics.
Manger and Gordon were fully in their groove in Act III – as a pair, they partnered seamlessly, held balances that extra moment longer, and transitioned strong lifts into deep dives with an extra flourish of the arms to show that they were really, truly balancing with no hands. The featured cast did not waste their final opportunities to show off their skills, but in particular, Gordon’s variation jam-packed with double tours and pirouettes drew shouts from the audience. A woman in the front row jumped to her feet more than once, even before the curtain fell.
The world of today sometimes seems like a lifetime away from March 2016 when Corella’s Don Quixote first premiered, but Pennsylvania Ballet continues to offer a temporary magical escape, and to infuse itself with fresh energy, renewed excitement, and a seemingly inexhaustible sea of talent. The Playbill for the performance contains nostalgic photos of Corella performing in American Ballet Theatre’s Don Quixote – a legend himself, alongside the iconic Paloma Herrera, yet today I left the theater hoping to see Gordon someday dance the role of The Slave in a hypothetical future production of Le Corsaire, and anticipating that the next time Manger plays Kitri, she may dance Act I with more confidence and abandon as she did in Acts II and III. Each program continues to showcase the company’s growth and evolution, and keeps audiences coming back for more.
Performances of Don Quixote continue at the Academy of Music until October 20th. The company will return to the Merriam Theater in November to present three World Premieres, specifically created for Pennsylvania Ballet.