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The Suzanne Farrell Ballet

Balanchine's 'Don Quixote'

by Kate Snedeker

August 26, 2006 -- Edinburgh Playhouse, Edinburgh

To see “Balanchine’s Don Quixote” is to view Balanchine and “Don Quixote” in an entirely new perspective. Restaged by Suzanne Farrell, for whom it was created, “Balanchine’s Don Quixote” eschews the high-flying bravura pas de deux and comic humour of previous balletic versions, instead focusing on the Don himself. It is a finely crafted, touching story of a dying man’s final journey – real and imagined – in pursuit of his ideal woman. Brought back by Farrell’s superb company (including dancers from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada) after more then twenty years off stage, this performance marked the international debut of “Don Quixote”, a rare treat for all in attendance.

Balanchine began work on his “Don Quixote” in 1965, with Suzanne Farrell as his newfound muse both balletically and personally. The parallels on and offstage became even clearer when Balanchine himself danced the role of the Don in the preview performance. The ballet, last performed in 1978, was bequeathed to Farrell by Balanchine upon his death a half decade later. It would be nearly thirty years before “Balanchine’s Don Quixote” would grace the stage again. When Farrell re-staged the ballet as a joint production for her own company and the National Ballet of Canada, her guidance came from an un-notated score, two films – one pirated, the other incomplete – and her own memory. The result is a moving production of what is perhaps not the finest of Balanchine’s creations, but a fascinating look at a mostly hidden side of Balanchine.

This premiere performance was not without its hitches – a long delay was followed by another after the appearance of the conductor, apparently due to a medical problem backstage. A snagged backdrop corner, audible yelling during a changeover and an unintended blackout suggested that another tech rehearsal might have been advisable, but it did not mar what was otherwise a memorable evening.

It is fair to say that “Balanchine’s Don Quixote” is not one of the choreographer’s better works, but it stands out even among his limited repertoire of full-length ballets. Most unexpectedly for a man who generally shunned storyline, the ballet contains as much acting as dancing.

The story begins in Don Quixote’s study, where the aging Alonso Quixano the Good slips into the fantasy world of his books. His servant girl becomes the lady of his dreams: the woman he must glorify by bettering the world with his chivalrous deeds. While Don Quixote may be portrayed as a buffoon in other balletic versions, Balanchine’s genius is in his gentle, moving portrayal of a man of pure heart, but failing mind. We do not laugh, but ache for this Don as he proceeds on his futile journey.

He creates Dulcinea out of the stories he reads in his book, and Balanchine has her first appear dressed and posed as a Madonna, stepping down a flight of stairs, enclosed in a giant book. She is, quite literally, stepping out of a storybook. It is this vision that draws the Don out on his adventures - she is his inspiration and his devotion. And in the end, she is his salvation.

The sets, recreated by Zack Brown, as well as the commissioned score, written for the ballet by Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to Vladimir of “Lolita” fame, both subtly hint to the precarious tragic humour of the ballet. The sets are relatively simple – a few pieces creatively, but effectively used to illustrate each location. The soaring size of the earlier pieces – a massive stairway and the Don’s bed, nestled between the pages of an oversize book, give the scenes gravitas, but hint at the Don’s departure from reality. Nabokov’s spare score can reach to the upbeat, but is generally melancholic, wreathing the ballet in a sense of gently impending doom.

In the role that Balanchine originated, Momchil Mladenov was superb as the aged Don Quixote. His slender legs the only sign of youth, Mladenov created a believable, sympathetic character down to the final gasps of breath. Farrell is lucky to have such a character dancer in her “stable”. Opposite him as Dulcinea was the sweetly delicate Heather Ogden, a principal with the National Ballet of Canada. She moves with the lightness that Balanchine’s choreography demands, making the role her own without losing the essence of Farrell’s original.

The ballet meat of “Balanchine’s Don Quixote” encompasses a few group sections and a series of quirky divertissements. Farrell’s corps, a collection of Balanchine trained dancers from various North American companies is wonderfully cohesive, though not immune from slight deviations in arm or leg position. Nonetheless, it is impressive for a company that is comprised of such a wide variety of dancers. In the choreography, inspired by Farrell’s abilities, Balanchine explores the off-centre and off-balance.

Both in the group sections and in the solos for the women, there is a great deal of work on pointe with the leg in attitude and hopping changes of position. This motif is seen in the series of divertissements in the palace where Don Quixote finds himself, as well as in the sumptuous, though simply costumed corps section for the Maidens in the Palace gardens. The divertissements are very quirky, full of virtuosity that is hidden to the inexperienced eye. Bonnie Pickard, Shannon Parsely and Jared Redick, long time Suzanne Farrell Ballet members shone in their Palace Garden variations.

The opening corps section is in La Mancha, though it is a very stylized Spanish dance, more Balanchine then Spain, with few set details to create an authentic location, and costumes that though colorful, are neither here nor there. (Holly Hynes recreated Karinska’s original designs.) The lively dances were brightly performed, and the Don's arrival and departure was on a real, live horse. Kudos to Neil Marshall, I believe, who led the horse through its paces.

The most unusual section comes in the Palace where the Don is invited by the Duke and Duchess after they stumble upon the Don. By this time the Don has tried to rescue a boy from being beaten, slaves from their chains, and a puppet Dulcinea from ‘her fate’ in a puppet show, only to be humiliated each time he tries to be chivalrous. He believes his fate to have changed in the Palace, but humiliation is soon to follow.

The courtiers are attired in full skirted, velvet dresses and suits, their legs for all intents and purposes hidden by the fabrics. In the beginning, in the slow, stylized court dances, the courtiers seem to float across the stage. Then Balanchine begins to use the arms to replace the missing legs, creating a precise, angled choreography done in complete synchronization, hands & arms changing position in series of exact movements. Hands flick back and forth, wrists jutting out; arms go up and down. This jutting wrist motif is seen elsewhere in the ballet.

Balanchine triumphs in his choreography for the 16 Maidens, two couples and Dulcinea in the garden. The weaving, alternating patterns are pure Balanchine, highlighted by a breathtaking sequence where Dulcinea and the two demi-soloist women, one on either side of her, go through a series of arabesques in perfect synchrony, each supported by a ring of corps dancers,.

Also apparent in “Don Quixote” is Balanchine’s love for children. A number of impeccably rehearsed local children appear in two key sequences, the first being a recreation ‘in miniature’ of the Don’s dream, complete with knights and his beloved Dulcinea. We also see the children as living puppets, lifted up and down by the hidden puppeteer.

Religion is a constant presence in symbol and symbolism whether it is the maid using her hair to dry the Don’s feet or the cross carried by penitents past the Don’s deathbed. And a deathbed it was, for Balanchine does not allow it to end happily ever after. By the time he arrives back in his study, the Don is dying. Yet, because Balanchine never allows his ballet to dip to simple or bawdy humour, the Don retains his sad, but poignant dignity. A bit of a fool perhaps, but his pursuit of the ideal (woman) retains a sense of chivalry and piety that makes him a sympathetic character.

The final scene finds the Don returned to his bed, awaiting his death. There is no dancing, just a steady stream of priests, penitents, cross bearers and acolytes. Behind this slow march of impending death, the Don goes through his death agonies. Just before he finally succumbs, the figure of his maid, still to him the earthly embodiment of his Dulcinea appears on the great stairs dressed as the Madonna. As she stretches out her arms, the Don is lifted up above his bed on a hidden lift - the bond between them so strong the eye can almost see it. Then, she releases him to earth and his date, and the Don quickly tumbles down and takes his last breath. Returning in her earthly form, the maid is taken with such grief at his death that one wonders if the Don’s imagination was not so far from reality. The curtain drops on the grieving Dulcinea, her head laid across her beloved Don, dignified to the end.

It is a fascinating and intriguing new look at a well-known choreographer. Balanchine sprinkles the ballet with stunning choreography, though he stretches out the thin story nearly too far, with transitions that can seem tedious. Thus “Balanchine’s’ Don Quixote” is best experienced as a unique look at an old warhorse, flavored with superb choreography and a story that is both universal and personal.

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