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San Francisco Ballet

Program 8 - 'Don Quixote'

by Toba Singer

April 28, 2007 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

The forerunner of the 1869 Imperial Ballet Petipa production of “Don Quixote” was staged in 1740 by Franz Hilverding.  One can only surmise that as feudalism sputtered to a fractious halt and deferred to the more advanced system of capitalism to assure the continuation of class society and its sacred reliquary of private property, succeeding productions of the ballet underwent a parallel transformation. 

It looks like a kind of dual power took hold, where the virtuosic was challenged by the comedic:  the grandeur of the pyrotechnical feats revered the outgoing Divine Right, and the besotted, slightly delusional windmill tilter and his entourage of one – and the rural idiots it dragged in its wake – were lampooned alongside the “so last year” mannered  aristocracy represented by the foppish Gamache.

San Francisco Ballet’s homage to that transition is a labor-intensive test of stamina that runs two hours and thirty-five minutes.  The corps de ballet dresses up in an array of colorful costumes, brilliantly designed by Jens Jacob Worsaae, and dances the choreography they’ve practiced their entire studio lives. For the soloists and principals, the challenges are more complex.  This is a story ballet with no tragedy, but if its many sight gags fail, it can unwittingly become one. 

I am happy to say that dramatically, and by that I also mean comically, San Francisco Ballet’s “Don Quixote” was anything but a tragedy.  Lead dancers, Vanessa Zahorian as Kitri and Davit Karapetyan as Basilio, were absolutely perfectly cast and did justice to their roles, never missing their comedic moments, and in the case of Karapetyan, taking any opportunity to add a little dash to the mix of gallantry, hijinks, sophistry and romance that can never flag no matter how many á la sécondes or double tours he turns into quadruples.  Zahorian presented herself more un-self-consciously and jubilantly than I have seen her do in any other role.  Except for a few fatigued moments in the grand pas at the finish, her turns were clean and plentiful, and she exhibited timing and musicality that gives the needed assist to her natural radiance and zest.

I never thought I’d see a Gamache able to inspire as much hilarity as that danced in 2003 by Benjamin Pierce, but Damian Smith doing changement with bent knees and dismounting his burro by sliding only halfway successfully down its flanks gave us some very funny moments – kind of like me attempting a full split at the end of barre. It’s impossible to know if it was intentional, but all the male peasants had bad haircuts, and so one can only guess that the hero Basilio, the Barber of Seville, was as incompetent at his trade as he was expert at romance. 

Espada was danced by Moisés Martín, whose long lunges and now-expert veronicas tempered by Castillian restraint, give his partner, Muriel Maffre as Mercedes, the license to turn his head with her “Spanish back” and generous cambrés that are almost menacingly seductive.  Her costume, a lilac crinoline covered by a sheer black overskirt and a contoured top seamed with those two colors, contrasts starkly with Martín’s white toreador dress and red cape.  Espada’s backup toreadors were to a man strong, imposing and powerful.  No bull in his right mind would mess with them. 

A highlight of the performance was Pauli Magierek’s Gypsy Woman solo, where she convinces me once again that her promotion is long overdue.  She uses every muscle in her body and every inch of space allowable to oscillate between rapid czardas-like choreography to long, floor-lovin’ adagio work.  Hello out there:  she could be dancing Maffre’s roles next season!

The corps, which dances well, but doesn’t get to do much that fires the imagination, still makes a great showing in Act II, Scene Two – Don Quixote’s Dream.  Dancing from their own personal strengths are Principals Yuan Yuan Tan as the Queen of the Druids, offering generous ballonés and extensive pas de chevaux, and Elizabeth Miner as Cupid, darting daringly from a fragrant bouquet of bourrées, side to side and back and forth. 

The long-awaited wedding scene is jubilant considering the hour, but as with most weddings, the bride and groom, though totally stand up in their commitment, seem like the most frazzled of the participants.  The grand pas starts so suddenly (in all versions) after the Fandango that you wish some brave choreographer would take the bull by the horns and set some minimal preparation.  Added to that built-in problem was the presence of a substitute harpist in the orchestra, who blew away the opening harp notes of Kitri’s fan solo.  In spite of obvious fatigue, Zahorian pushed through her 32 fouettés, which she took very high, as if her working leg hip was held slightly lifted.  

From the moment he stepped on the stage, Karapetyan received howls of approval from the audience, and with an Antonio Castilla-like boyishness, seemed to give them everything he could in return.  He and Zahorian are an incredibly well-matched couple.  Perhaps their partnering at the Jackson competition helped develop their one-hand-one-heart relationship, but they are in every aspect perfectly suited to one another, evident when she throws herself into his waiting arms – twice, or in the moments where she is variously coy and doting, or distraught when confronted by Basilio’s (mock) suicide.

Jump on your burro – you won’t have to fight for a parking space – and tilt your sword in the direction of Civic Center, where Armenia meets Iberia and the outcome is superia!

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