Don Quixote and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba

Choreography: Marius Petipa

Music: Ludwig Minkus

Debut: Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 1869

View excerpts from Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s 2008 Production

Loosely based on an episode from Cervantes’ great novel, Don Quixote is beloved around the world for its pseudo-Spanish zest, colorful costumes, gorgeous score and impressive technical stunts. In a ballet that culminates with a 32-fouette turn solo for the ballerina, it is bound to charm and excite. Indeed, Don Q. is a favorite classical ballet of mine. An excerpt from this ballet was one of the most challenging and most fun of the pieces I learned as a young dancer. I so enjoyed the hours spent working to capture the passion in the steps, which were both technically and emotionally demanding for me at age 14.

I’ve seen Don Q. performed over the years by various companies. The Bolshoi, which originated the ballet, is the definitive version in my mind. However, I was intrigued by last weekend’s production at The Kennedy Center, which was the first of any I’d seen by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the renowned company still directed by famed Cuban ballerina and 1948 founder Alicia Alonso.

As Alonso explains in the program notes, she undertook the staging of Don Q. in 1988 with great care and a little trepidation: “…it was very difficult to reconcile the depth of the Cervantes creation with the traditional ballet…along with the undeniable choreographic excellences and the richness of the Petipa style, I found musical incongruities with the dances of Spanish inspiration and, in some occasions, a lack of logical dramatic quality.” The result of Alonso’s thoughtful reinterpretation of Don Q. as a ballet is a unique version, “possibly the first professional version created by a company rooted in the Iberian language and culture.”

While it respects the Petipa tradition and incorporates elements of the later version by Alexander Gorsky, Ballet Cuba’s Don Q. successfully makes better sense of the plot, treats the character of Don Quixote with depth and sensitivity, links the folkloric dance elements with Minkus’ music and places technical virtuosity in the context of drama. But rest assured that these changes, while welcome, do little to diminish the ridiculousness of the ballet. Deluded Don Quixote and his drunken sidekick Sancho Panza intervene on behalf of Basil and Kitri, whose father wants her to marry a rich ponce rather than the poor barber with whom she is in love. One escape into the gypsy-laden woods, one dream of dryads and one faked suicide later, the couple is married and all is well. Cue the happy peasants, romantic pas de deux and virtuosic technical displays.

The highlight of the Ballet Cuba performance was Yanela Pinera’s Kitri, who danced with beauty and flair. Technically flawless, Pinera’s Kitri also had plenty of sugar and spice. Her partner’s long lines and multitudinous pirouettes could not compensate for a certain stiffness and immaturity that pervaded his performance. His poor Basilio could not match Kitri and, mostly, his partnering seemed to hinder rather than help her. A better match might have been Alfredo Ibanez, who danced the role of bullfighter admirably.

The corps de ballet shone, especially in Act II’s “white ballet” scene. Love, the dryads and their queen were a pristine vision of the feminine ideal. This scene began brilliantly and cleverly with Don Quixote rising up out of his body (played by a double) and entering the world of his dream.

If the production is more logical dramatically, it still lacks a pinch of the ole’ Bolshoi passion. There’s nothing like the way the Russians slam a lace fan to the floor and then dive into a deep backbend. Perhaps that interpretation of Latin passion is a bit over-the-top but then again so is classical ballet in general. Alonso’s ballet features a dance-packed few hours with very little posing and pantomime; even Don Quixote’s role involved more dancing than is typical for this ballet.

Alonso rearranged the plot elements quite a bit to accommodate a more logical progression of events and to show the Don Quixote character in a more sensitive light. In these ways, Alonso’s version is more akin to Balanchine’s 1965 interpretation, though certainly not as dark or serious as that. Balanchine’s version is completely separate from the traditional ballet. Set to a commissioned score by Nicolas Nabokov, it involves none of the antics of the original plot. Instead, it follows Don Quixote through a series of episodes and dreams, his visions of Dulcinea in the guises of other unattainable, ideal women, and to his deathbed. The subject is one with which Balanchine identified: “My interest in Don Quixote has always been in the hero’s finding an ideal, something to live for and sacrifice for and serve. Every man has a Don Quixote in him. Every man wants an inspiration. For the Don it was Dulcinea, a woman he sought in many guises. I myself think that the same is true in life, that everything a man does he does for his ideal woman. You live only one life and you believe in something and I believe in that.”

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