Review: Royal Ballet - Don Quixote - Royal Opera House

Performance: 30 Sep - 6 November 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 1 October 2013

Royal Ballet's 'Don Quixote' Carlos Acosta as Basilio. Photo Johan Persson, courtesy ROH

Performance reviewed: 30 September 2013

Ballet is the magpie of all the arts. It steals unashamedly from the other arts, sometimes as a visual reference; often for musical inspiration; and very frequently plundering literature for its narratives. Every great author has unintentionally given ballet the best storylines and Miguel De Cervantes’ Don Quixote is the source of the world’s happiest ballet. The one where the only death is a hammed-up mock suicide and everyone goes home smiling. But, though the character of Don Quixote looms large throughout the action, the ballet bears only a sliver of relevance to its literary forebear, taking the tiny peripheral episode of the wedding between Basilio, a young barber, and Kitri, an innkeeper’s daughter, as the point of reference for its libretto.

The prevailing fashion in ballet – as exemplified by the huge popularity of virtuoso, athletic dancers such as Ivan Vasiliev, Sergei Polunin and Natalia Osipova – is for big, bold and brash and there is no more suitable container for such energetic exuberance than Marius Petipa’s treatment of Don Quixote. The Royal Ballet has been without a version in its repertoire for several years: I last saw it in the summer season of 2002 in the version by Rudolf Nureyev, which by then was looking a little tired around the seams. The baton has now been handed to another heroic dancer, Carlos Acosta, to create a new interpretation of this classic, slapstick ballet and he shows a deft touch in refurbishing a well-trodden path, achieving that difficult balance between modernising and maintaining tradition.

This is most evident in the dream sequence of the second act where Acosta appears to have wielded the scalpel liberally on Petipa’s structure and steps, emerging with a new arrangement that nevertheless remains wholly in character and style with the original. It takes a huge body of knowledge to create a new artifice that sits so perfectly with revered convention and Acosta – who grew up in Cuba rooted in the traditions of this ballet and has performed the lead role of Basilio all over the world – is uniquely qualified to have directed this makeover. He has been ably assisted by Martin Yates’ fresh new arrangement of the Minkus score.

If the choreographic and musical content gets full marks, I was less enthused by Tim Hatley’s set, which seemed, at times, to move around more than the dancers. The town square was entirely composed of mobile homes that perambulated into different permutations, opening and closing like the parting of the waves to make way for the entrance of the title character – seated on the most enormous wheeled ‘War Horse’ model, appearing to be the reincarnation of a woolly mammoth crossed with a shire horse. A side issue to this sailing set was that the back lot of the town comprised flat-panelled facades without any attempt to disguise their lack of depth and dimension. Apparently, we are able to build ‘flat-packed’ housing these days (I’m told that it’s all the rage in Japan) but it seems they were already doing it in this idealistic image of eighteenth century Spain but the houses remain flat, even when unpacked. And, although I enjoyed the choreography of the dream sequence, the huge daisies (or were they dahlias?) dominating the scenery were a massive distraction. I appreciate that it is a dream sequence and therefore the characters could be diminished to the size of insects but it still doesn’t seem right. Only the opening scene of the third act, in a basement of a bar dominated by huge brick arches, really hit the spot for me. Mr Hatley was also responsible for the costumes, which were colourful and traditional. I particularly liked the downbeat style of Don Quixote himself and loved that his famous lance was a pole ripped from his four-poster bed!

This ballet needs a lot of dancers with over 20 in Soloist roles and it is a stretch for any company to fill the rosters. The first night was very much a case of bedding it in and it has to be said that there were a few mishaps, not least in the concluding pas de deux, which was effected by an irritating loose strand of hair for Marianela Nuñez’s Kitri. Given that her new husband is the world’s most under-employed hairdresser (Basilio is always said to be a barber) then perhaps Acosta should keep the errant hair as standard and his Basilio could whip out the scissors and lop it off. (As an aside, I don’t really understand why an innkeeper’s daughter from Barcelona would be wearing a tiara fit for a princess, even at her wedding)?

Unfortunately, these accidental setbacks (though hardly calamitous) do impact on the performance and the pas de deux – which should be the highlight of the performance – was instead rather underwhelming. However, Nuñez and Acosta brought sparks of freshness and vitality to their lead roles, which, in terms of personas and characterisation, borrowed heavily (and appropriately) from their successful partnership as Lise and Colas in that other “happy” ballet, La fille mal gardée.

Acosta and Nuñez aside, the best dancing performances came from Elizabeth Harrod as an enlivening Amour, Tom Whitehead’s gypsy leader and Laura Morera’s pert, fiery turn as Mercedes, the street dancer. (The last time I saw The Royal Ballet perform Don Quixote, more than a decade ago, Morera was a wonderful Kitri.) Melissa Hamilton was both ethereal and regal as the Queen of the Dryads but the effort of very demanding choreography was hard for her to disguise. Gary Avis brought some welcome comic attention to the role of Kitri’s father, the innkeeper; Christopher Saunders was an unusually rustic Don Quixote; Philip Mosley, a suitably rotund Panza; but it was Bennet Gartside’s feeble Gamache (a rich nobleman in search of a bride) that stole the crowd scenes and, bringing to life an old adage, he really does get slapped in the face with a wet fish.

Every classical ballet company should have a Don Quixote in its cupboard and Carlos Acosta has done a fine job in giving The Royal Ballet’s old Don a completely new lease of life. I suspect that there were a few first night nerves around, perhaps compounded by a very long summer break without performing at the Royal Opera House. When these wobbles are settled – and notwithstanding the moving buildings (perhaps more suited to Doctor Who than Don Quixote) – this will undoubtedly become a firm family favourite within the Royal Ballet’s repertoire.

Don Quixote continues in rep at the Royal Opera House until 6 November

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 in the UK.

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