Quixotic masterpiece

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday May 1, 2012
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San Francisco Ballet's Don Quixote is like a weekend at the Sevillana Grande in Las Vegas �" amidst Spanish architecture, the toreadors come at us in burnt orange with accents of turquoise and have very good legs. The head toreador is in canary yellow, his dancing partner is clothed in a cascade of electric violet which ruffles up all around her as she bourrees  a slalom around the knives they've stabbed into the floor, pausing in a lunge after each passo with a deep back-bend. And that's before our hero lifts his girl overhead one-handed then runs downstage carrying her like the Olympic torch. And it's all before Don Quixote arrives, on horseback, in their little town on his picaresque adventures, and puts his lance at the heroine's service. 

This is the millionth restaging of a ballet by Marius Petipa, unrivalled master of the Russian ballet, which had its first performance in 1869 in Moscow, and was such a hit it was immediately expanded into a five-act extravaganza for St. Petersburg, and has been a popular hit more or less ever since. It was from shows like this that Ziegfeld developed his Follies, and that the Marx Brothers got the idea of seeing how many variety acts you could string together on a plot-line of boy-has-to-overcome-obstacles-to-get-girl while making fun of the plot device at every opportunity. 

Sarah Van Patten in San Francisco Ballet's Don Quixote.

(Photo: Erik Tomasson)

Needless to say, our lovers have to go on the lam, with her father and his entourage in hot pursuit �" through a gypsy camp (with guess what? gypsy dancing! superb gypsy dancing), then they get away to a taverna in the mountains where dancing on table-tops is going on, and of course they join in, and our girl runs all the way across the stage and dives headfirst into her lover's arms.

In 2003, SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson rushed his new staging of Don Q onto the boards in an ill-fitting stage set because he knew he had the dancers. The time was right to make a world-class re-working of the ballet. Tomasson had brilliant choreographic assistance from his star dancer Yuri Possokhov, who came from Moscow's Bolshoi (where he had literally grown up in this ballet), while SFB star dancers Lorena Feijoo and Joan Boada, refugees from the Cuban Ballet, were still in their prime and could present the best case I've ever seen that this ballet is not just a glorious circus, but in fact an intellectually respectable ballet: a work of art with a central idea, a vision, a cause. It's dedicated (like most of Petipa's ballets, whether comic or tragic) to Woman's Right to Choose. Our Cuban ballerina Lorena Feijoo, more than any other ballerina since the heroic Maya Plisetskaya, could embody the middle-class girl who deserves to be happy and is not going to be ground down. Her outrageous energy and charisma, her emotional range �" she can be earthy, she can be fiery, she can be lofty �" gave her star power of the first magnitude. Unfortunately for us this year, she's pregnant. She showed off her stomach at this year's Izzies Award ceremony (where she received a special honor), and she's looking very happy, so it would be churlish to say how badly we missed her.

Jim Sohm as the title character in San Francisco Ballet's Don Quixote.

(Photo: Erik Tomasson)

Especially since the opening-night ballerina, Vanessa Zahorian, has got the Stateside version of Cuban moxie blazing like a comet. She tore up the stage in a performance that got bolder and more daring and hilarious from scene to scene, and closed the evening with a fireworks display of perpetual-motion turns that could hardly be equaled anywhere.

The news about this revival of Don Q is a) the corps de ballet has greatly improved their powers to dance all the folkloric Spanish dances, which are the overflowing bounty of this ballet, and b) the beautiful and effective new sets and costumes are by Martin Pakledinaz (who's designed for Broadway and opera, but especially for dance), which are at Balenciaga level and create the world, the mood, the tone.

It's time to praise the dancers �" from top to bottom, they were splendid. Sarah Van Patten found ways to make us forget how thrilling Muriel Maffre was as the street dancer. Van Patten's back-bends were staggering, and her phrasing smacked of flamenco. Pierre Francois Villanoba pulled himself up to a grand Spanish pride as Espada. Hansuke Yamamoto, the Gypsy king, made a fall-and-release pulsation happen in his big jumps that created thrilling climaxes, and the corps dancer Danielle Santos made a true flamenco soleares out of the Gypsy Queen's solo that excelled all her predecessors' performances in the role. She had the duende.

In the vision scene �" Don Quixote had a great fall when he set his lance at the windmill in the mountains, and while in his coma he had a vision of Kitri as Dulcinea �" both Clara Blanco (Cupid) and Sophiane Sylve (Queen of the Dryads) excelled in the lightness and purity of their dancing. Jim Sohm made a noble Don, Pascal Molat made a hilarious and touching Sancho Panza, and corps dancer Myles Thatcher made a screamingly funny star-role out of the foppish suitor Gamache, whom Kitri does not want to have to marry. Joan Boada, in the twilight of his career, made a wonderful hero (Basilio, Kitri's beloved, the village barber), young and fresh and hilarious, and clearly the man for her. Zahorian suffers from having grown up as a nice middle-class American girl who has never killed a chicken or hung out the laundry �" or at least, she doesn't look like it �" but still knows who it is she loves and is not about to be married off to some wealthy fop she doesn't love.

 The SF Ballet Orchestra plays unbelievably well, under the direction of Martin West. Bravi tutti. The show runs another weekend, through May 6.