Fanning the Flames
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Don Quixote”
Opening Night, Friday 3 February 2012
by Dean Speer
Wow! Wow! Wow! Pacific Northwest Ballet unleashed firepower with its performance of “Don Quixote,” the North American debut of Alexei Ratmansky's version of the Petipa/Gorsky classic with sets and costumes from the Dutch National Ballet’s production this past weekend at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.
It was also a triumph for Carla Körbes as Kitri and her partner Karel Cruz as Basilio – particularly for Körbes since one of the last times she was slated to carry a major North American ballet debut [“Roméo et Juliette”], she was sidelined.
They nailed all of the numerous technical demands such one-handed overhead lifts, a fish-dive pose where Cruz balances her with no hands, only the pressure of his arms holding her in this precarious place, her nose mere inches from the stage floor and all of the adagio balances, turns, and jumps. For those who are interested in the fouetté count from the concluding duet, we counted 28 including many doubles – all the while opening and closing a big red fan – at the conclusion of which, the audience roared its approval and pleasure.
This is a top-drawer production from start to finish, exciting, fun and filled with good humor and enough hint of the somber to give its story some muscle traction and zest.
This represents three acts and six scenes of dancing and acting for the two leads and for the entire company, some of whom had as many as four costume changes due to its large scale – and the fact that it was originally made on a European company of 80 dancers compared with PNB’s current 46 [some corps parts were taken by students from its Professional Division]. The physical properties – sets and costumes – were shipped to Seattle last Summer from Amsterdam via the Panama Canal at a cost of one million dollars. Additional personnel were also shipped over, such as a wig master and three stagers.
Anyone who’s learned or performed the famous Act III pas de deux from the wedding scene knows first-hand just how challenging it can be – now multiply this to equal all the scenes in which the principal characters appear and you get the idea of how grand and demanding, for technique and for stamina, this energetic and peppy ballet is. The level of energy is enough to light up a small town.
Some of my favorite bits are where the townsmen toss Sancho Panza into the air – punctuated by the mid-air “reaction” of actor Allen Galli, whose gift for physical comedy is superb – and where he and the Don interact including riding their respective steeds [a stubborn donkey and a horse] to go do battle with windmills on their quest for adventure.
Artistic Director Peter Boal scored a coup in booking actors Tom Skerritt as the Don and Allen Galli as Sancho Panza. The opening night audience welcomingly applauded both of their entrances, as they did Körbes and Cruz in Act I.
Speaking of physical comedy, what more can be said about Jonathan Porretta’s wickedly funny turn as the fop, Gamache – the rich character who thinks he wants to marry Kitri? His added touches included pressing his face to the glass window of his carried [and sometimes, being dropped and dumped out of] litter were hilarious, as were his character’s displays of bravado – but only in safe circumstances.
Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky greatly expanded the usual two or three minutes of prologue into 15, giving an insight to the Don’s motivation and state of mind and introducing his loyal squire, Sancho Panza. I enjoyed how the Don’s bookcases haunted him by floating in and out and how his vision of Dulcinea is introduced by having her appear, veiled and looking for all the underworld, like Giselle.
Act II’s vision scene introduced a ballet blanc – the women in white tutus making steps, poses, and movement sequences typical of the best of Pepita, the original choreographer. This is a showcase not only for the tight corps de ballet but also for Rachel Foster as Cupid and the Queen of the Dryads, Sarah Ricard Orza, with a principal variation done by the dancer who plays Kitri, but seen here as part of the Don’s vision. PNB School children filled out the, literally, smaller corps with nice balonnés sautés, skips, and kneeling poses.
The set for this scene was striking in its uniqueness – an overhang of hundreds of ribbons giving the stage a grotto appearance and a sense of, to me, Art Deco. Everyone loved it.
Foster’s speed and control as the spritely Cupid were impressive and exhilarating – a solo which combined and contrasted this speed with sudden “freezes” into a pose or balance. As the Queen of the Dryads, Orza’s freshness and elegance of line and control have rarely been more evident.
The Mercedes of Maria Chapman and her toreador, Espada – Batkhurel Bold were big, fiery and sharp, sharp, sharp and well paired. Chapman has elevation to rival that of the men and her initial saut de chat á la seconde that introduces her first variation was so high and flat in second as to take one’s breath away. Bold has strength and presence to spare and it was clear he was enjoying himself throughout the evening – a pleasure for the audience to enjoy.
Music Director and Conductor Emil de Cou lead the mighty PNB Orchestra through the bouncy mostly Minkus score with a sensitive eye and ear, supporting the dancers and moving the music forward.
Blessed with a happy ending – which we all need and appreciate in these times, “Don Quixote” was the right mid-Winter elixir of sunshine, shadow, and elevated dancing and values that had and has me and my mates inspired and all declaring we each wanted “...to be in it!” When this is true, you know you have a genuine hit on your hands.