At first glance, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is an unlikely source for a ballet: its two leads are an old man and a portly squire, both comically ill-equipped for the adventures on which they embark. There is a kind of rough nobility to them but it comes in direct contrast to their physical capabilities. And yet Rudolf Nureyev, one of the most powerful, athletic ballet dancers of all time, turned it into a vehicle for his own prowess.
He did this largely by ignoring the book, pushing Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to the side, and creating a central pair of lovers who have only the most rudimentary relationship to Cervantes’ novel. (To be fair, Nureyev was only following the example set by Marius Petipa, whose own choreography helped cement the young dancer’s international reputation.) Nureyev then famously filmed his work – with the aid of Robert Helpmann and the Australian Ballet – in an airport hanger in Essendon back in 1973.
The Australian Ballet have returned to the work, adapting that film version for the stage as a showcase for the company’s progress under the artistic direction of David Hallberg. Which is fitting because it’s a showy piece, leaning into extended displays of skill and virtuosity over narrative complexity. In the introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote in 2003, she speaks of the novel’s ability to seem tragic on one reading and hilarious on another; Nureyev doesn’t allow a skerrick of tragedy to impinge on his telling, for better or worse.
The production opens on a false proscenium, which frames a screen showing close-ups of Gustave Doré’s magnificent engravings of the knight-errant of La Mancha, over which credits roll. A still of the film’s set lifts to reveal its exact copy on the stage, a neat nod to the production’s history as an artefact of cinema – although this is the extent of the filmic references. The remainder of the production plays out as a traditional stage ballet.
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A prologue follows depicting Don Quixote (Adam Bull) enlisting his servant Sancho (Timothy Coleman) in a quest, ostensibly to search the land for people in need but mainly to just hang around and watch great dancing from the sidelines. Thankfully, no one has to wait long for that. The first act is set in the port of Barcelona, bustling and mercantile, full of pageantry and showmanship. It is electric from the outset.
Leading the charge are Basilio (Chengwu Guo) and Kitri (Ako Kondo), lovers navigating the great cliche of Renaissance storytelling: a gruff father who disapproves of their match. In this case Lorenzo (Brett Simon) wants his daughter to marry a rich fop, Gamache (Paul Knobloch), rather than the mischievous man of her dreams. Like Don Quixote and Sancho, these comic villain roles are largely decorative, bumbling around the set but posing no real threat.
Nureyev clearly wants his lovers to shine, and Guo and Kondo rise magnificently to the occasion. The choreography in this first act is furiously paced and endlessly complicated but the dancers make it look joyful. Lightening-fast legwork and intricate phrasing make way for soaring leaps and swooning dives; the dancers’ lines and extensions here are remarkable, but effortlessly so.
The corps are brilliantly utilised, as waves of movement behind the principles or as individuals shining in their own right. Hallberg’s effort with this aspect of the company is evident throughout; group work hits the necessary synchronicity without becoming mechanistic or rote.
Where the first act is robust and fiery, the second is more delicate. An extended scene with Don Quixote imagining himself surrounded by nymphs is gorgeously danced by the corps – although it sometimes feels dangerously close to a geriatric sex fantasy – and an early pas de deux with Guo and Kondo, she draping a large piece of material behind her, is luxurious and sensual.
The final act returns to the pacing of the first, with such an abundance of fouettés and pirouettes, grand jetés and aerial turns that it verges on the orgiastic. There is an ebullient group number from the corps in full Spanish garb, and more show-stopping virtuosity from the two leads, among some funny stage business about faked deaths and hasty nuptials. It is heaps of fun, the exuberance underlined by some breathtaking precision.
The Viennese composer Ludwig Minkus’s score is wonderfully variegated and richly melodic, played by Orchestra Victoria under the baton of Jonathan Lo with sensitivity and passion. Richard Roberts’ realisation of Barry Kay’s sets is ingenious, brightly lit by Jon Buswell. And Kay’s costumes are glorious – evocative, playful and gorgeously detailed. It makes for sumptuous viewing.
Don Quixote is far from a faithful adaptation of Cervantes’ novel – it has none of the character’s pathos, none of his bruised dignity – but perhaps this doesn’t matter all that much. The deluded old man and his homespun sidekick tilting at windmills are mythic figures now, set loose from their source material. If Nureyev wanted them idling on the sidelines, dumb witnesses to some truly awesome dancing, then who are we to argue?
Don Quixote runs until 25 March at the State Theatre Melbourne before opening at the Sydney Opera House on 8 April