Firstly, I’ve got to apologise for this review… I was up half the night before the performance being rather ill and I spent the day of it in bed. But wild horses can’t keep me from the Royal Ballet – especially when I’m getting a Stalls Circle view of them – so I dragged myself to Covent Garden to watch Don Quixote. Albeit half asleep and ready to sprint to the bathroom if necessary. (Luckily, it wasn’t.)
Previously, I’d only seen Carlos Acosta’s production when it was live screened in its debut season, and this viewing from inside the Royal Opera House reinforced my first impressions. Don Quixote is a lively, colourful ballet full of energy and, unusually, sound – dancers stamp, clap, click and shout throughout, which injects the whole proceedings with a vital realism. Gary Avis brings his typically excellent character acting to the role of the eponymous questing ‘hero,’ wistfully searching for his Dulcinea and forming a comic double act with Sancho Panza. The town square that sidles on and off stage building by building is still odd, but Tim Hatley’s other designs are effective – particularly the shadowy tavern and the oversized flower garden.
The gypsy camp scene in Act II was a highlight for me the first time I saw Don Quixote. The gypsies are strikingly different to the colourful townspeople we meet in Act I – their dark costumes blend into the shadows and their unique, earthy dance style involves soft shoe and a good deal of floorwork. But some things don’t gel: there’s a fair bit of just standing around and shouting, and at one point, all of the female dancers lie prone on the floor. No, I don’t know why. It’s still an enjoyable part of the ballet though, particularly when the gypsies’ moves are accompanied by a band of live guitarists around a campfire.
Ryoichi Hirano owns the stage as the macho Espada, supported by a troupe of matadors who were a little untidy on the night. The masculine energy of their lunges, leaps and swirling capes is counterbalanced by the feminine Garden of the Dryads, which appears to Don Quixote after he gets knocked out by a windmill. (Ridiculous, yes, but we go with it.) This dream sequence is a direct relative of the classical White Act, awash with pastel colours and traditional pointe shoe choreography for the female corps. Fumi Kaneko and Anna Rose O’Sullivan put in sprightly allegro turns as the Queen of the Dryads and Amour respectively. This scene completely stalls the narrative and is arguably out of place in such a character-driven piece, but it does ring the changes stylistically. And hey, it’s pretty.
Now, who have I missed out? Oh yes – the leads. Steven McRae and Iana Salenko are breathtakingly good as the ballet’s lovers, Basilio and Kitri, who are kept apart by her disapproving father and a string of admirers until Don Quixote intercedes on their behalf. From the moment they make their dramatic entrances in the town square, it’s clear that they are the ballet’s driving force. While Iana Salenko isn’t as expressive as Marianela Nunez – Carlos Acosta’s first choice for the lead role – she makes a poised and flirtatious Kitri and dances a wonderful castanet solo, hitting the iconic Plisetskaya leaps with ease. Steven McRae’s dazzling athleticism is showcased perfectly by the demanding choreography, and he nails Basilio’s cheeky attitude with so much charm and swagger it’s a wonder the stage wasn’t mobbed. By me. (Incidentally, this was McRae’s third performance as Basilio in four nights – and he still found the energy to make a one-handed lift last several gasp-inducing seconds). Both dancers ham up the comedy moments nicely too – Salenko’s mini tantrums at being matchmade with Gamache, McRae’s attempts to grab her knee that almost leave him facedown on the floor and the fake death scene all elicit plenty of laughter from the audience. But it’s the Act III wedding pas de deux that really floored me. McRae and Salenko dance in perfect unison down to the last flourish, as outstanding together in the adagio as they are apart. The coda has more than a hint of competitiveness about it, as McRae’s gravity-defying revoltade turns are followed by Salenko’s seemingly endless poised fouettés. Colourful and sunny as this production is, it’s the leads that steal the show and transform Don Quixote into something truly special.