Review – Don Quixote – Mariinsky Ballet at Royal Opera House

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I have seen “Don Quixote” – the ballet – twice before, once in Prague (where the dancers seemed weak, as if all the good ones had gone to the West) and one with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, where Kaori Nakamura was a great Kitri but the ballet just seemed so incoherent I wasn’t able to get into it. However, last year people raved endlessly about the Osipova/Vasiliev Bolshoi performance, and I kicked myself for not seeing them. What is it about this ballet that people like so much? What was I missing out on? I decided to buy tickets for the Mariinsky production and figure it out.

I think I’ve got it out now: Don Quixote is basically a plotless ballet (with a wedding scene at the end) that’s set up to enable a variety of exciting dances that allow a company to display the virtuosity of a wide number of its dancers. The theme is “We’re in Spain!” so you get colorful costumes (nearly no tutus), fake Flamenco dances, and all of the fans and swirling toreador capes you could ever hope for. I have a soft spot for Spain and Spanish dancing, so I was willing to accept this poetical vision, with the exception of the Eastern Dance in act 3 (Maria Shiviakova showing her wonderful arms but basically failing to do any dancing – and really, why was it there?) and the big dream sequence in Act II’s land of the Dryads, which looked like it had been rolled out of a dusty closet populated by an Edwardian Am-Dram club’s Iolanthe.

So what kind of fun dancing do you get (since there’s no point in us worrying about the plot – it’s basically La Fille Mal Gardee served with sangria)? There’s the fabulous role of Kitri (Anastasia Matvienko) and her lover Basil (Denis Matvienko) – she stamps beats on her toes and bends like a willow, while he leaps and does one-handed girl-overhead lifts (which I think would be far more challenging with me than Matvienko). The village people clap, slap their fans, play tambourines, and have mock knife-fights. There are more toreadors than could possibly be reasonable in a town of 300, all swinging their capes in time: star among them (and a rockin’ dancer) is Espada (Alexander Serveev), who gets to show off even more than Basil because he’s sprinting rather than marathoning. He is accompanied by the “street dancer” (Ekaterina Kondaurova), dressed in purple and SO elegant. But Kitri comes in and leaps through the air with her feet flying up to her head, so fast and strong it was truly electrifying. How can a human being even do that? There was also a great pas de trois with Basil and two girls (I assume the flower sellers, credited as Yana Selina and Viktoria Krasnokutskaya) that also cranked the volume up to eleven. How could they go up from this?

Act two means it’s gypsy time, so we go from knives to slapping whips and from walls of capes to men on all fours going from one diagonal hand-foot pair to the other in an amazing athletic display. It’s all a bit too Carmenesque – I expected fortune tellers any minute – but energetic and fun. This makes the slow dream sequence that follows even more irritating, because it breaks the mood, and we’d been promised giant spiders (in the synopsis) which never appeared – but since this whole show was about jumping the shark, I figured, why not? I want thirty foot tall eight legged creepy-crawlies! Gimmee!

By the end of Act 2, I had run out of energy, but had to wait through another half hour interval until act III started at 9:30. Aargh, fifty minutes to go and me worn out! For act 3 we had the most corny, comic death scene ever, a few “these people just come through the middle of town and dance any old time” performances, and then a fun crowd scene with tossing flowers – all a big build-up to the rather dry wedding scene, which had Kitri and Basil back in black and white formal ballet wear. Matvienko did such amazing turns in the air I thought he must be part gyroscope to have kept his balance – even hitting the scenery didn’t stop him. Still, I was done by this time, and I wish the whole thing could have been cut down a bit so that I could have maintained my enthusiasm. That said, despite this being the biggest pile of cheese I’ve seen on stage in ages, and clearly as old as the hills, it was a great ride to take and I can highly recommend it.

(This review is for a performance tht took plce on August 2nd 2011. It has one final performance tonight.)

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One Response to “Review – Don Quixote – Mariinsky Ballet at Royal Opera House”

  1. balletbunny Says:

    I am delighted that you are posting more ballet reviews and that you enjoyed the Mariinsky Don Q. There are so many versions – with so many story variations and different dances – that it is often hard to choose between them. ABT and The Bolshoi probably vie for prime position overall at present, with The Bolshoi (for me) winning by a hairsbreadth. And, with Vasiliev and Osipova in the leads, they are currently peerless: they also score points for the sheer thrill of their testosterone-fuelled toreadors and an extended gyspy dance that brings the house down. If you had seen some previous Mariinsky dancers in the Dryads scene, you would wish only that it could have been extended such was the exquisite beauty of their dancing. Throughout this season, the Mariinsky Orchestra deserves consistent praise for such wonderful underpinning of the dance. Thanks to your half-price heads up of tickets for Thursday and Friday. I shall be seeing the Balanchine programme (which failed to tempt me – and many others – at full price on Friday.

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