Spanish delights

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 24, 2015
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When the communists came to power in Russia after the revolution, the future of ballet was in question. Was this an art of the elites that needed to be crushed, or was there virtue in it that could be used to support the cause? Fact is, though the Imperial family was the prime supporter of ballet, the performances had always been open to the public, and the public always came en masse. It was a popular art in the Tsar's days, and it remained a popular art in the Soviet Union.

There was perhaps no ballet more popular than Don Quixote, which had been around in several versions since the 1860s, which became one of the cornerstones of the Soviet repertory, and which won a standing ovation last Friday night at the War Memorial Opera House when San Francisco Ballet revived its own production of this "don't-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down," unsinkably optimistic warhorse.

San Francisco Ballet dancer Dores Andre in Helgi Tomasson/Yuri Possokhov's Don Quixote. Photo:Erik Tomasson

Everything about Don Quixote is spectacular. There are hundreds of costumes, not to mention Don Quixote's horse, Sancho's donkey, the fans, tiaras, swords, toreador capes, stilettos; the bodega furniture, hams, wine-cups, the windmill; all spread out over a three-act, many-scened travelogue of Spain, which our heroine and her boyfriend traverse as they flee the wrath of her father, who wants to marry her to a rich fop. And of course, everywhere they land on their flight they meet kind people who want them to hang out, "have a drink, let's dance!"

And dance they do! But their virtuosity is merely a prerequisite for presenting mythic energy. These characters are archetypes, albeit comic archetypes �" nobility in adversity, expressed not as stoicism, but as unconquerable high spirits.

In making SFB's production, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and his collaborator, the Bolshoi-raised Yuri Possokhov, have picked brilliantly from the variant texts and assembled a first-rate character ballet. The story-points emerge effortlessly but firmly: Don Quixote (Jim Sohm) puts his lance at the service of an innkeeper's daughter (the irrepressible Mathilde Froustey), who has no advocate (other than her outrageous high spirits and her refusal to surrender control of her life) to prevent her marriage to a fop (Ruben Martin Cintas) who has no virtues but his wealth. There is, in fact, a magnificent defiance built into the character of Kitri, at the deepest level, which makes her a revolutionary figure. She's like Erin Brockovich.

San Francisco Ballet dancer Carlos Quenedit in Helgi Tomasson/Yuri Possokhov's Don Quixote. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Froustey has the high kicks and flirtatious energy the leading role demands, though she lacks the strength in plie that it takes to make Kitri's phrases truly compelling. When Froustey's on pointe, she spins like a top, she can hold her balance forever, and do anything necessary to seem incorrigible �" and she's a wonderful actress, with a telling use of her eyes. But landing from a jump, she can't stay down long enough for her next phrase to build up the momentum it needs. In the first act she rushed nearly everything, but she warmed up, and by the last act she was hurling herself across the stage into her partner's arms with fantastic gusto, and she won my heart. Her partner, our Cuban-born premier danseur Carlos Quenedit (pronounced Kennedy �" it's the French spelling, don't ask), had a triumph from the get-go dancing Basilio with all the flourish and bravura of the great mid-century masters.

The corps are very strong this year. Their style, virtuosity, heart, and gusto inform every detail of the background and make a ballet I never thought I'd have any respect for into a coherent expression of a kind of ideal, a comic sublime. Daniel Deivison Oliveira commanded the stage any time he took it. Sofiane Sylve made a remote, magnificent visionary creature as the Queen of the Dryads, in the dream Don Quixote had after being tossed by the windmill. Dores Andre stood out as Kitri's friend.

Many couples will dance the lead roles. I am especially looking forward to Lorena Feijoo's performance this Sunday; she was the ballerina for which this production was made, back in 2003, and she epitomizes everything the ballet stands for �" the strength of woman, fiery, earthy, with tremendous dignity and true grit.