Review: Royal Ballet - Don Quixote - Royal Opera House

Performance: 25 November 2014 - 22 January 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 27 November 2014

Royal Ballet 'Don Quixote' Marianela Nuñez & Carlos Acosta. Courtesy Johan Persson & ROH

Performance reviewed: 25 November

We may be enduring the long run-in to a General Election but forget Theresa May, or Ed Balls – the REAL masters of spin are the vivacious Marianela Nuñez and the indomitable Carlos Acosta. One would need the calculating power of an enigma machine to comprehend how many rotations are spun on the stage by these incredible dancers. For much of this two-hour ballet they are swivelling pirouettes, fouettés, pique turns, jetés en tournants, Italian fouettés and….well, every other conceivable ballet technique for spinning circles. That Nuñez and Acosta are two of the greatest “turners” in the world of ballet is showcased to the max in Acosta’s own production of Don Quixote, here returning to the Royal Opera House for its second consecutive autumnal run.

The narrative of ballet’s Don Quixote bears only slim resemblance to Cervantes’ novel, fixating on a minor reference to the unnamed innkeeper (now named Lorenzo in the ballet) whose sarcasm gives rise to the pretence that Don Quixote is a “knight”. The incidental character of his daughter, Kitri, takes centre stage in the ballet, alongside her paramour, Basilio, a young barber of Barcelona. Acosta’s production helpfully provides a comprehensive prologue (visually shaped very much in the mould of Rudolf Nureyev’s interpretation) that seeks to explain the back story to the adventures of Don Quixote and his gluttonous servant-turned-squire, Sancho Panza.

The second and third acts of this production are outstanding, especially with this cast, but I remain unconvinced by a first act that appears to contain the majority of Acosta’s choreographic embellishments to the traditional version of Don Quixote as inherited from the golden age of Marius Petipa and the Imperial Russian ballet in St Petersburg. There remain two fundamental reasons why I think the first act works less well than the rest: firstly, in incongruously lyrical choreography that doesn’t fit the rambunctious, comedic scenario of a bustling market square in Barcelona; and secondly, in the all-too-distracting perambulating set. If the dancers spin at every given opportunity, then the set rolls. Not only does Don Quixote’s skeletal horse amble along on a set of wheels but the houses of Barcelona also skid around like marbles on a marble floor.

I concede that some set movement has relevance. In Act 2 I understand why the windmill behaves like the evening express from La Mancha, travelling from a distant blot on the backdrop to cross the stage and back again, increasing in size as it comes closer, because Don Quixote believes it to be a giant who has kidnapped his beloved Dulcinea (a divinity he imagines to have been restored to human form in Kitri). But, the perambulations of the market square buildings are mostly an unnecessary distraction. Is there any valid artistic reason why a house is wheeled out and back again just to show a character coming out of the front door? I’m surprised that Don Quixote didn’t have an immediate nervous breakdown when he “rode” into the market square, because not only was he mounted on a horse apparently the size of a house but the architectural perspective made all townspeople standing by the buildings at the back seem to be giants!

Tim Hatley’s set designs work so much better in Act 2, where Don Quixote’s dream is represented in a world reduced to a miniature garden dominated by huge flowers and brambles; and in the cavernous interior of the tavern for the opening scene of Act 3. Hatley’s designs capture Hispanic vibrancy in a rich variety of colours, contrasting with the plain stonework of the itinerant housing. I particularly enjoyed the gypsy encampment scene where an idealistic flavour of Spain was conveyed by vocal encouragement of the fireside dancing. Known as jaleo, this essential part of the Spanish spirit was utilised in key moments throughout the work.

Nuñez sizzles like a freshly-cooked paella. From expressive comedic acting to the graceful strength of impeccable technique, her Kitri radiates efficacious vitality throughout the ballet, pacing and driving the momentum towards a coruscating (and very happy) finale. It is the best of many great roles for her, showcasing everything that Nuñez does so well (which, frankly, is mostly everything)! She is well supported by Acosta in the “cheeky-chappie” role of Basilio, always the securest of partners and the finest of athletes he appears even leaner and fitter than at the world premiere, a year ago. When he failed to complete the first one-arm presage lift in Act 1 (where he holds Nuñez overhead with a single straight-armed vertical extension), he made sure to do it with exaggerated ease at the second ask: it was like the typical circus-act trick of deliberately failing the first time, so as to emphasise the miraculous achievement of the second attempt! It brought smiles from the performers and laughter from the audience, which seemed to fit the mood perfectly.

These great dancers were well supported throughout the cast. The richness of the Royal Ballet’s tradition in character artistry rose to the significant challenge of so many comic roles: Gary Avis brought Lorenzo out of the more usual background of insignificance with a masterclass in mime; Philip Mosley was a role model for Sancho Panza, for me, he epitomised the character as imagined through Cervantes’ writing; Bennet Gartside played up the uninhibited foppishness of Gamache (a rich nobleman also after Kitri) with great comedy timing; and I’m even warming to Christopher Saunders rather rustic portrayal of the title role (Don Quixote as Windy Miller!). The featured dancing roles were all equally accomplished with Thomas Whitehead and Kristen McNally (as the lead Gypsy couple), Yuhui Choe (a divine Queen of the Dryads) and Meaghan Grace Hinkis (a sprightly Amour) all helping to enrich a superb second act.

My issues with mediocre production aspects of the opening act are put into perspective by the all-around quality of the performances. Wandering buildings are a minor and quickly-forgotten irritation when the dancing and character portrayals are this excellent across the board. It’s getting colder by the day but this Don Quixote will certainly warm you up with exciting debuts to come, not least from two more great dancers, Natalia Osipova and Vadim Muntagirov: Osipova will dance the role of Kitri (with Matthew Golding, on 20, 29 Dec & 5 Jan) and Muntagirov debuts as Basilio (with Akane Takada, on 30 Dec (mat) & 3 Jan). Nuñez will also dance Kitri with her husband, Thiago Soares on 3 (mat) and 7 January. That will be worth seeing.

In rep until 22 January 2015
Dates & casting:

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

Photos: Johan Persson

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