Don Quixote is always a real treat for ballet lovers: this show is hard to ruin, and offers fool-proof ways to make the audience laugh. From as far back as 1869, it has been stuffed to bursting point with dance insertions and impromptu extra scenes, so any adjustments made to the plot look absolutely seamless, as if they had always been there. This new Don Quixote has been staged by Johan Kobborg, invited to collaborate with the St. Petersburg Leonid Yacobson Ballet Theatre. The 45-year-old scion of the world-famous Danish school, and ex-principal of the Covent Garden Royal Ballet, has always been more than willing to perform in Russia and started staging ballets some ten years ago: you may remember his incredible La Sylphide at the Bolshoi in 2008. Today, this impeccably well-mannered man decided to let himself go a little and take liberties with the classics. Though not without pitfalls, his Don Quixote has still turned out just wonderful: a living, breathing performance with not a hint of dust and mothballs, and with its own unique character.
Kobborg has given the ballet's cast character development, relying on the same approach that Covent Garden has to Swan Lake. The narrative uses the beloved framing device of children's theatre: in Scene 1, Cervantes watches his servants, their comings and goings and affairs of the hearts; then, he transforms into Don Quixote, while the others become Sancho Panza, Kitri, Basilio... After that, we follow the good old usual plot: Kitri's daddy dearest wants to wed her to the rich dunce Gamache, but the two young sweethearts still win the day. Leaving the classical scenes untouched, Kobborg has subtly accentuated the familiar (and kind of tired) grand pas, and when it comes to the parts where the choreographer has full freedom, he has really set his imagination loose. The crowd dances in the square have finally stopped looking like a Russian Maslenitsa carnival painted to look like something from Spain: the revelry of common folk and the stately processions of wealthier citizens now have completely different body language. The melodramatic 'gypsy dance', set in the Romani camp where the lovers have fled, has been replaced with a thoroughly orchestrated story episode where the men are hitting on Kitri (Kobborg would often laugh at the show's 6+ age rating, which dictates modesty), and the sudden arrival of Papa Despot is the only thing that brings everyone together.
Kobborg thinks his dances through like a professional performer, staying true to the story's logic as fits an alumnus of the Danish school. Seeing that Espada the Matador and Mercedes the Street Dancer have already been engaged in a heated dancing contest for centuries now, he reasoned that he might as well give them a love story; the same happened to the poor neglected Sancho Panza, who is traditionally picked on by girls. Don Quixote's vision has been brightened with highlights of kindly humour: the ethereal faeries of the corps de ballet are dressed up in village dresses, which have been transformed into elegant tutus: this is quite logical, what with the knight imagining the innkeeper's daughter to be La Belle Dame of the ballads of yore. The set designer, Jérôme Kaplan (known for illustrating Aleksey Ratmansky's Illusions Perdues at the Bolshoi) has been inspired by Gustave Doré's engravings of scenes from Don Quixote, making the show stylish and culturally educational beyond the boundaries of ballet. The fantastical Basilio — Kimin Kim — has been invited by the Yacobson Ballet over from Mariinsky. While the lovely Kitri is the Theatre's own ballerina, Sofia Matyushenskaya, making her wonderful début performance. The ginger dunderhead Gamache, played by Tasman Davids (the very first alumnus of the Vaganova Ballet Academy hailing from the faraway New Zealand), is absolutely amazing; perfectly hilarious. The only disappointment is the orchestra, as a good one is impossible to find in St. Petersburg. Well, we can't blame the Yacobson Theatre: they are a homeless company, burdened by the hectic nomadic life. But they do know whom to invite to work on their shows.