David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
July 22, 2014
-- by Jerry Hochman
What impresses most about the version of “Don Quixote” that the Bolshoi Ballet unveiled last night during its two week series of Lincoln Center Festival performances is its choreographic focus on ballerinas. While this may not seem so unusual – after all, the lead character in most Romantic and Classical ballets is female – I can think of few ballet productions that are so overwhelmingly ballerina-oriented. And last night, the Bolshoi ballerinas, particularly its corps dancers and young soloists of varying rank, delivered.
Although there were antecedent ballet incarnations, Marius Petipa’s version of “Don Quixote” to music by Ludwig Minkus, which premiered at the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1869, is considered the ballet’s original production. After Petipa expanded his version in 1873, Alexander Gorsky restaged it for the Bolshoi in 1900, and it is this Petipa/Gorsky version that is the wellspring from which most current productions are derived. And it is this Petipa/Gorsky production, in a “new choreographic version” by the Bolshoi’s former Artistic Director Alexei Fadeyechev, that had its first performance at the DHK Theater last night.
There is no indication of how, if at all, Mr. Fadeyechev’s staging may have changed the basic Petipa/Gorsky choreography. Regardless of its genesis, this production is less coherent than the production previously choreographed for American Ballet Theatre by Mikhail Baryshnikov, or even ABT’s current and somewhat inferior production. Most significantly, there are two differences that make little thematic sense: First, the visit to the gypsy encampment, in which Don Quixote has a delusional episode followed by his ‘dream’, is not told within the context of the overall story, but is a separate stand-alone sequence (Kitri and Basilio are not present), which clearly provides cover for grafting a little classical-looking ballet onto the base story (and the dubious opportunity for a commedia dell’arte-like 'puppet show' that makes the Don go bonkers) . Secondly, Kitri’s wedding somehow becomes a royal celebration, held among garishly costumed nobles (they may resemble costumes worn by nobles in paintings by Velasquez, but they’re still garish-looking) – the justification being a casual meeting between Don Quixote and a duke and duchess and their retinue out for an intra-Act afternoon’s stroll in the woods, during which these nobles presumably invite Don Q to invite Kitri and Basilio, who aren’t even there, to celebrate their wedding at the castle. Maybe the castle had a larger dance floor than the tavern or the town square, or perhaps the duke and duchess gave the Don a catering discount.
But logical staging side, far aside, this production includes dance segments that either were deleted in the ABT productions or were added subsequently, which translates into more dancing overall, and more quality choreography for ballerinas than in other performances of “Don Quixote” that I’ve seen. Aside from seven featured Dryad dancers (which of course are female), there are seventeen characters identified in the program who have dancing roles in this production. Of these, fourteen are women. And although most of these are ‘featured’, as opposed to ‘lead’ roles, they provide significant opportunities to gauge the ability of the Bolshoi ballerinas below the principal level.
The leading roles, Kitri and Basilio, were performed by Principal Dancers Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov (the ‘Evil Genius’ in last week’s “Swan Lake”). Mr. Landratov, who joined the company in 2006, danced Basilio with youthful vigor, and proved to be excellent both as a partner (powerful and controlled overhead lifts, for example) and individually (electrifying turns that he did without unnecessary self-congratulatory flourish). My only criticism is that he played Basilio without any particular character – he was neither the clownish underachiever, nor the cocky, party-animal playboy, both of which ‘types’ I’ve seen, and to me there was little stage chemistry between him and his Kitri. He was simply, and excellently, a hyperactive young man who happened to be a really good dancer.
I found Ms. Alexandrova’s performance to be more problematic. I understand that she recently recovered from a serious dance injury, which may have limited her jumping ability (her Plisetskaya leaps, for example, were mediocre). But technically she was more than adequate, particularly in the final act’s pas de deux, with scintillating pique turns and fouettes. But where Kitri is supposed to be a spitfire, a feisty Spanish coquette, Ms. Alexandrova, who joined the company in 1997, came across as a feisty Spanish cougar. Even discounting the age difference (which really isn't all that unusual or crippling for the role), Ms. Alexandrova played Kitri with pasted-on flourish. Every final pose was accompanied by either a cocking of her head or an open-mouthed gape that didn’t so much say ‘I’m an irresistible party girl’ as ‘look what I just did’. This made her portrayal look both old-fashioned and forced. It may be the way this role is supposed to be played in Bolshoi productions – but it makes Kitri a character whose skills one admires, rather than a character one can connect with.
The other male lead role, Espada, was danced by First Soloist Denis Rodkin as a deadpan, cardboard character. But even with his relative stiffness (which comes with the choreography) he played Espada with unusual vibrancy. To me, Mr. Rodkin resembles Patrick Bissell, who initiated the role in Mr. Baryshnikov’s ABT production. And although his performance did not include any of the creative nuances that Jared Matthews recently brought to the role with ABT, Mr. Rodkin handled his cape expertly (not an easy task), and executed the toreador-inspired steps with appropriate (and believable) gusto.
But as finely performed as Mr. Rodkin was as Espada, he was overshadowed by his two companions: Mercedes, portrayed by Oxana Sharova (a member of the corps), and a “street dancer,” danced by Anna Tikhomirova (a First Soloist). Both danced superbly, but Ms. Sharova was particularly ablaze.
In ABT’s production, Kitri’s friends are dubbed “Flower Girls”. Here, they’re given names, Juanita and Piccilia, as well as more dancing. Played by Yanina Parienko and Anna Rebetskaya, both Soloists, they were the first act’s spark plugs.
In the ballet’s second act, the initial scene takes place in a Spanish tavern followed by Don Quixote’s field trip to the gypsy encampment. In the ABT version, it’s the other way around – the tavern scene follows the gypsy encampment scene and the ‘dream’ scene, which makes more sense. But in the ABT version, the gypsy dances themselves are more restricted in scope, and primarily assigned to men (perhaps to level the dancing playing field). Here, the Gypsy Woman is the heart of the scene, dancing an entire story in the course of her solo. As a result, the scene is more than just a sequence of character dancing. And the performance by Kristina Karasyova, another of the Bolshoi’s extraordinarily talented soloists, was extraordinary. Every part of her body was filled with passion. Her fiery dancing fused perfectly with her profoundly moving characterization, and her performance was alone worth the price of admission.
The tavern scene itself includes an interesting dance that the ABT version omits. Intended to be a ‘typical’ dance that a tavern might provide to entertain its customers, it’s one of those significant dancing ‘asides’ that adds essential character and depth to a scene. While I watched it, I dubbed it a ‘castanet’ dance because the lead dancer utilizes them in the course of her dance (she actually plays the castanets as she dances). But the program describes her simply as a ‘Spanish’ dancer, accompanied by a pair of accompanying ‘Guitar’ dancers. However they’re identified, as danced last night by Maria Zharkova as the Spanish dancer and Nino Asatiani and Vera Borisenkova as her guitar-carrying cohorts, all members of the corps, the dance was wonderful, and Ms. Zharkova smoldered.
Also unlike the current ABT version, in this production the Dryad Queen is danced by a different dancer than the one who portrays Mercedes. Last night, it was performed by Leading Soloist Olga Smirnova, and even though I still noticed a somewhat corkscrewed torso (similar to her ‘style’ as Nikiya in her guest appearance with ABT several weeks ago), to me it was the finest performances I’ve seen her give to date. She was consistently pitch-perfect (and much faster and more on-the-music than Ms. Alexandrova when they appeared on stage together). The dream scene’s Cupid, Yulia Lunkina, a Soloist, danced with finesse, but the role here is played relatively straight, without the ‘cuteness’ that is inherent in the ABT conception. To me, without this quality, an essential component of the role is lost, but that’s not Ms. Lunkina’s fault.
And in the final Act, Kitri’s Wedding, the dancers who performed variations within the main pas de deux were Maria Vinogradova, a Soloist, and Ana Turazashvili, a member of the corps. Each danced magnificently, with Ms. Vinogradova, who also was featured last week in “Swan Lake,” continuing to impress with the clarity of her execution and her spirited presence.
Of all these ‘added’ or ‘expanded’ roles, the only one that was somewhat disappointing was also the only one that added another male dancer. In the final Act, a dance called ‘Bolero’, a duet, was an added variation. It was danced satisfactorily by Anna Antropova and Vitaly Biktimirov, both First Soloists, but the dance itself is forgettable.
In addition to those with featured roles, there were several ballerinas I noticed who performed as villagers (they're not specifically identified as sequadillas, as in the ABT production) or Dryads, who danced with particular verve and who brightened the stage (or in one case, a 'drinking table' at the tavern). But since the Bolshoi program fails to identify any of the dancers other than those in featured roles, there's no way I can identify them.
The Bolshoi’s next New York production is “Spartacus.” Perhaps the ballerina-centric “Don Quixote” was intended to immunize audiences against the testosterone-laden production to come. Regardless, and even though it’s not thematically as ‘tight’ as the ABT version, the increased dancing it provides showcases the Bolshoi's many talented ballerinas at all levels of rank, and makes me look forward to further opportunities to see these dancers grow.