Dubbed the ballet's Carmen by dance historian Tim Scholl, Carlos Acosta’s production of Don Quixote executes Spanish flair with similar aplomb. This is an adaptation of an adapation of yet another adaptation, all of which can be traced back to arguably Spain’s greatest export, Miguel de Cervantes – rivalled only by flamenco, paella and Velázquez…
As one of the few Petipa ballets named after a hero rather than a heroine, Don Quixote stands out as a seminal work in more ways than one. Petipa’s fondness for revitalising stories of yore is married to Ludwig Minkus’ knack for composing “exotic” ballet scores (La Bayadère is the first to spring to mind - hello, Orientalism!). The ballet’s origins are mirrored in Bizet and Mérimée’s aforementioned opera, Carmen, both products of a long-held fascination with Spanish culture. Like Petipa and others before him, this is Acosta’s tribute, likely owing in part to his own Cuban roots.
Don Quixote. Sarah Lamb as Kitri, Federico Bonelli as Basilio and Artists of The Royal Ballet.
© ROH, Johan Persson, 2013
The plot follows the romantic delusions of a nobleman-turned-knight in a loosely set Habsburg Spain, in the city of Barcelona. The audience is first privy to a dreamlike sequence, led by the self-christened Don Quixote (Christopher Saunders) and his darling Dulcinea, imaginary as she may be. He desires her, to revive chivalry, and to serve his country – a tad unrealistic, the cynics might say. His fantasy is interrupted when Sancho Panza (David Yudes), his squat, simple-minded squire (a farmer to the rest of the neighbours) rushes into his dormitorio, chased by housewives in hot pursuit of a stolen chicken. This is perhaps a test to our hero, who successfully dissolves the conflict before going off in search of higher callings – love, for one, though not necessarily his own.
Marianela Nuñez plays one half of the ballet’s romance, Kitri, who finds continual conflict with her father over her love for Basilio (Vadim Muntagirov), and her affected suitor-to-be, Gamache. The latter is a powdery, high-heeled figure embellished from head-to-toe in haute rococo. Naturally, he is the butt of much of the slapstick humour. At the request of Kitri’s father, Gamache approaches Kitri with sounding confidence, only to be rebuffed with several hard slaps in a Punch and Judy-like fashion. Muntagirov cuts quite the figure as Basilio, the unmonied barber – his jetés and cabrioles are seemingly boundless. The young lovers are joyfully unrestrained in Act I’s pas de deux, executing numerous fish dives to the delight of the audience.
Don Quixote. Ryoichi Hirano as Espada and Artists of The Royal Ballet.
© ROH, Johan Persson, 2013
Alongside a Tim Hatley-designed backdrop of faded white, terracotta-roofed villas, the corps de ballet gathers under a vibrantly painted Spanish sky, to interact with one another in a largely bacchanalian nature. The distinctly Spanish “¡olé!” and the slightly more odd “¡mamacita!” permeate the air. This is Acosta’s influence, and a clear departure from the arguably more stiff upper-lipped approach of his directorial predecessors in the ballet world. The ballet’s namesake makes a grander than grand entrance more than once, on what appears to be a wicker horse - not nearly as tall and/or terrifying as Robin Hardy’s 1973 creation, but impressive all the same. The ever-faithful Sancho Panza trails after, but is caught up in the townspeople’s revelries, then repeatedly tossed (not unlike one would a salad). Gamache, similarly, is left to their mercy. Ryoichi Hirano’s dashing Espada leads the toreadors in a fervent parade, while his lady love Mercedes (Laura Morera) smoulders alongside him in their flamenco-esque entanglements. Despite the characters serving as little more than (eye-catching) background fodder, their palpable chemistry demonstrates otherwise.
Don Quixote. Ryoichi Hirano as Espada and Artists of The Royal Ballet. © ROH, Johan Persson, 2013
Don Quixote’s relatively recent entry into the Western ballet canon is only due to earlier perceptions of comic ballets equalling entertainment for children. Now, Acosta has successfully managed to subvert this by injecting more than a hint of the feverishness of summer sun. Considering the latter is famously scarce here in the UK, Don Quixote will no doubt be welcomed with open, untanned arms.
Have a read of Strand's exclusive interview with Mayara Magri, First Soloist of the Royal Ballet and discussion of her upcoming debut as Kitri on March 30!
15 February – 4 April
Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD
Tickets from £5
Live UK cinema relay on 19 February
Two cinema tickets for £10 at participating cinemas (nearest is Piccadilly)