Don Quixote review – the Bolshoi puts its best foot forward

Royal Opera House, London
Strutting matadors, fiery señoritas and outstanding soloists show the scandal-hit company at its virtuoso best

When I was first learning about ballet as a child I read a lot of books that summed up the plots of famous old classics with phrases like: “There is a lot of pretty dancing to celebrate the marriage of x and y. They live happily ever after.”

Those sentences sprang irresistibly to mind watching Don Quixote, a soufflé of a confection that has only the most delicate flavour of Cervantes. What it offers though is sensational dancing – virtuosic, beautiful and open-hearted – created by Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky to show off ballet as the most refined and communicative of the arts.

In this incarnation, Don Quixote is the story of a flighty girl called Kitri who loves the penniless barber, Basil, against her father’s wishes. Their road to happiness is both helped and hindered by a market square full of dancing villagers, matadors and street performers, the odd Gypsy and the wanderings of the titular knight and his squire, Sancho Panza.

The Bolshoi has been dancing it since its first performance in 1869; its heritage is deep in the company’s bones. They instinctively understand that for Don Quixote to shine it must be performed with absolute commitment from the back row of the corps de ballet to the grandest principal. In this new production, unveiled in London last Monday, each and every one of them delivers and the ballet gleams.

This is the Bolshoi putting its best face to the world, and banishing the gloom and doubt that settled over the Moscow-based company when in 2013 their former artistic director, Sergei Filin, was almost blinded in an acid attack incited by one of its own dancers. Now a new man, Makhar Vaziev is in charge, and watching from the stalls, he must have felt proud of his company, working with clear artistic purpose.

With designs by Valery Leventhal and costumes by Elena Zaitseva, the production exudes sunshine and dazzling colour. Alexei Fadeyechev has also cleaned up the choreography, stripping it of some of the fusty embellishments that have clung down the years. The scene at the Gypsy encampment where Don Quixote tilts at windmills particularly benefits from this rethinking; it is both sumptuous to look at, with its lowering sky and squat windmills, but also dramatically clear.

‘Nobody twirls a cape or clicks a castanet with as much fervour as the Bolshoi’s dancers’: Kristina Karasyova (Mercedes), centre, in Don Quixote.
‘Nobody twirls a cape or clicks a castanet with as much fervour as the Bolshoi’s dancers’: Kristina Karasyova (Mercedes), centre, in Don Quixote. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The performers fill this frame with vigorous and brilliant life. Nobody twirls a cape or clicks a castanet with as much fervour as the Bolshoi’s dancers, and the strutting matadors and fan-waving señoritas provide a blaze of vitality. The corps de ballet exhibits devastating precision and attack, moving at furious speed to keep up with Pavel Sorokin’s exciting conducting of Ludwig Minkus’s score. In the vision scene, where Don Quixote pursues his dream Dulcinea in the kingdom of the Dryads (I did warn you about the plot), they shimmer with an adamantine grace, each movement perfectly placed.

The soloists are equally outstanding, with Anna Tikhomirova a willowy and lovely street dancer, Anna Antropova fiery in the endless Gypsy dance, and Vera Borisenkova a deep-bending, castanet-wielding seductress.

Watch Olga Smirnova as Kitri.

The rising star Olga Smirnova isn’t a natural Kitri; she has a solemnity that doesn’t suit the flirtatious silliness of the character. But she has the most airy, arched jump, glorious arabesques, and her fouettes and turns are some of the fastest and sharpest I’ve ever seen. As the evening goes on, she finds, too, an attractive naturalness in her portrayal; you do feel her love for Basil finds expression in their final bravura pas de deux.

As Basil, Denis Rodkin is sensational, flinging high jumps into the air as if carving them with a knife, making the most incredible feats look easy. Best of all, his easy smile and wry charm illuminate the part and the stage. You want to smile not only at him, but with him – which is more or less the effect of this triumphant production.

The Bolshoi season continues at the Royal Opera House, London until 13 August


Sarah Crompton

The GuardianTramp

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