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'Don Quixote' & a woman's right to choose

by Paul Parish

San Francisco Ballet dancer Mathilde Froustey in Tomasson/Possokhov's "Don Quixote." Photo: Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet dancer Mathilde Froustey in Tomasson/Possokhov's "Don Quixote." Photo: Erik Tomasson  

San Francisco Ballet, our big league troupe, is finally back in the Opera House for the real dance season. They kicked off last Wednesday with a successful Gala, then the real opener on Friday: a boffo performance of the ultimate romantic comedy, "Don Quixote."

"Don Q," first done here in 2003, was a hit from the get-go; the first "Bravos" came within five minutes of the overture. The house was crowded, standing-room packed. The stars had outrageous chemistry. Angelo Greco and Mathilde Froustey played cool, but no one was fooled. They were made for each other, and they were intriguingly matched virtuoso dancers: she glamorous, chic, the belle of the ball; he fiery, strong, astonishingly articulate in mid-air. They had the sort of relationship where he'd lift her arms-length overhead, hold her there, and she'd love it and rattle her tambourine. Then the marvelous comic mechanisms fell into place, for they've got opposition. Her father's against it, he's got her engaged to a rich fop, and she won't have it. Froustey had big success dancing this role with the Paris Opera Ballet.

Quixote's story was first put onstage 200 years ago. It embodies revolutionary ideals that underlie the American, French, and Russian revolutions. It's about the right to happiness, and it still grabs you. Kitri (Froustey), as she's called in Russian, is legally blonde, OK? She is the daughter of an innkeeper, and she's got a mind of her own. This story is about her right to choose for herself whom she wants to marry. When Don Quixote (Jim Sohm, the former principal dancer, now a wizard in character roles that call for nobility) hears about her, he goes to put his lance at her service. She doesn't really need his help, or that of his "squire" Sancho Panza (Pascal Molat, who created the role in 2003, and is astoundingly funny all night long), but the complications are hilarious.

The conflict is richly played out, with brilliant performances from the mime-roles: her father (Val Caniparoli, outstanding in the role), who treats her like his princess but wants her to marry someone who can support her; the Don; his squire, whom kids like to tease, and end up tossing him in a blanket, each big heave throwing him up in a position twice as funny as the last; and of course, the rich fop Gamache (hilariously played by Alexandre Cagnat).

It's a complex comic contraption, as full of sight gags as a Keystone Kops routine, a total barrel of monkeys. Throughout the first two acts, the play of actual dance moves against mime sequences among the comic side characters is itself a source of dazzle and delight. Since this is a comedy, and Kitri gets what she wants, the last act is a wedding, with lots of dancing. But up until then, each act builds to a crisis where the lovers have to go on the lam, and the father and suitors follow in hot pursuit.


San Francisco Ballet dancer Jim Sohm in Tomasson/Possokhovs Don Quixote. Photo: Erik Tomasson  

Since it's a comedy, the incidentals are very important. The best performances in the whole show were in fact the dances of the toreadors and the gypsies, with truly astounding outings for Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, who strides forward like Holotta Tymes with a cape in her hand, and stares us down with tragic intensity. Everything he did was magnificent. In 2003, when the staging was new, the ballerina Lorena Feijoo danced with this level of outrageous energy. Last week the dancers who turned it up to 11 were Deivison-Oliveira; his counterpart as Esmeralda, the street dancer, Jennifer Stahl, a commanding presence; and Kimberly Marie Olivier, the Gypsy Queen, who outdanced anyone I've ever seen in this role, even at the Kirov or the Bolshoi.

It's SFB's 86th season, and the 34th since Helgi Tomasson took over the company as artistic director, which was a shaky, just-rescued-from-bankruptcy thing. He led out with a revival of the best single production he ever made. Probably his best decision there was to let Yuri Possokhov help him, since the then-principal dancer, who'd come from the Bolshoi, knew the ballet from his childhood, in the Soviet productions, and could coach every performer, down to the children in the puppet show, in roles he himself had danced.

Style matters. Even if the themes are strong, the performers have to be believable in their parts. "Don Quixote" is widely regarded as a silly crowd-pleaser, but our production is the best-thought-out version anywhere in the world, rivaled only by the Kirov's of St Petersburg. All versions have balanced the theme of a woman's right to choose with the deeper symbolisms Kitri's rights stand for: the rights of all the downtrodden. The ballet needs to embody these issues in the story of people we care and would go to bat for.

Everyone deserves praise; the horse and the donkey were perfect. Special praise to Val Caniparoli, who's played mime roles here for years but rarely found the depth of character he brought to this role. He sometimes plays the role of the audience's friend, "explaining" his feelings. Here he was a really anxious father, afraid his daughter was going to ruin her future, and he would not be around to help. I was moved by his performance.

The principals danced well, without being inspired. Angelo Greco seemed to flag in the last act, as if maybe Basilio had enjoyed sparring with Kitri in flirtations but didn't really want to be her husband. Or maybe he was just tired. His role is spectacularly athletic: maybe it was just pacing. Froustey was not always on her leg; from the first, it seemed the conductor, Martin West, was out of sympathy with her and gave her tempos that were a hair too slow.

The Gala was a wonderful night on the town for the donors, with dancing after. The big news was a pas de deux by Danielle Rowe for Sofiane Sylve (magnificent) and Aaron Robison (heartbreaking), about a grown woman who's had it with a guy of whom she was fond, but he just didn't get it. Everybody in the house got it. We all want to see it again.


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