Giving Cervantes a Hand — and an Arm

Just a couple of weeks before the start of 2018, declared to be the year of Marius Petipa, the Leonid Yacobson Ballet Company performed at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, showcasing its premiere of Don Quixote, one of the must-haves of a classical ballet repertoire. Olga Fedorchenko reports.

Andrian Fadeev, the Yacobson Ballet's art director, does not make a secret out of wanting to embellish his theatre's repertoire with the solidly performed good old classics: last year's premiere of The Sleeping Beauty is clear proof of that. It must be said, though, that the Yacobson Company works in somewhat restraining conditions (the team is small in size and lacks a permanent stage of its own), and has to do its utmost both to keep the original ballet's drive from wasting away, and to attract audiences with more intriguing new gimmicks than the fountain in The Sleeping Beauty's finale or a living horse and donkey in Don Quixote. In the case of the last two shows, this new gimmick was the contribution of Johan Kobborg, the guest choreographer and production director.

Ever since 1869, when Petipa presented his Don Quixote in Moscow for the very first time, the cast of characters and performers has been growing in size with each consecutive rendition. Mr. Kobborg has also decided to give the ballet a demographic boost — by introducing the author, Miguel de Cervantes, who falls prey to writer's block in the Prologue. Waving — unlike his one-armed prototype — both of his mighty upper limbs, the ballet's Cervantes (Artyom Pykhachov) finds the characters of his future novel among Barcelona's youth and eagerly immerses himself in work.

The plot at large has not undergone any major changes; in fact, swapping the sequence of some scenes (like the Romani camp and the tavern) has only brought the ballet closer to Petipa's original script. The one thing that Kobborg's Don Quixote is big on is the promotion of family values: at the closing of the final act, readiness to do their duty to society was expressed not only by Kitri and Basilio, but also by the Street Dancer and Espada and by Sancho Panza and a lovely tavern wench. While the hapless Gamache, who traditionally gets tossed off-stage into the leg drapes, suddenly discovers that he is inclined towards the spiritual and expresses a desire to become a priest.

The crowd scenes are full of character acting — a well-practised show of Russian daring-do being passed for Spanish passion. The choreographer has, once and for all, swept the ballet clean of the 'decadent' elements of Alexander Gorsky's edition that are still present in the Mariinsky theatre's versions of the ballet, such as the asymmetric corps de ballet line-up during the vision scene: Kobborg's dryads flit about in perfectly straight files. The Yacobson Theatre does not have as many ballerinas specialising in classical solos as are needed for Don Quixote (two flower girls, the Street Dancer, the Dryad Queen, Cupid, the inserted Pas de deux variation), but this issue has been met with a radical solution: the few ballerinas that the company does have simply perform several parts each. The Street Dancer (Svetlana Svinko) doubles as the Dryad Queen; the two flower girls (Anna Skvortsova and Nana Kurauchi) appear again, also as a duo, in the Pas de deux variation; and the nameless maiden that earns her living by serving drinks first at Lorenzo's, then at the tavern in the second act (Olga Mikhailova) turns out to be Cupid. Mercedes' famous dance on the tavern table is now a party of three: the semi-recognisable elements of Nina Anisimova's choreography are relayed to the viewer by Santa Kachanova, Angelina Grigoryeva, and Darya Tokareva.

In his capacity as the new version's choreographer, Mr. Kobborg has given the source material a sizeable upgrade, reworking almost every scene from scratch and adding some half a dozen of new variations and dances. Sancho Panza and Gamache are now far more active on-stage: each of them has received a couple of flamboyant solos, and Gamache also makes two sets of swirly fouetté turns (18 in all), usually reserved for ballerinas. Espada, too, has grabbed two extra dances for himself, in addition to two solo fragments. In the Tavern scene (with added Matador Dance music from the first act), he instigates a brawl between the bull fighters and the townsfolk and tries to seduce Kitri; and in the final act, when the protagonists get married, he celebrates his own engagement in a duo with the Street Dancer. The dances may not be of the most exciting sort, but they make a logical addition to the plot, explaining Espada's complex character and shedding light on his future fate. Andrey Gudyma, who plays the part, unabashedly demonstrates his fiery temper, and there actually is one thing he should have challenged to choreographer to a duel for: cutting the final cascade of striking cloaked renversés and replacing them with grand pirouettes.

Furthermore, several dances have been added for Kitri and Basilio, such as the main character's introductory variation and the duo at the Romani camp, set to the famous Gypsy Dance music, which culminates with Papa Lorenzo catching up with his wanton daughter and forcing her to wed Gamache. The two pairs of soloists have made a seamless addition to the revised Don Quixote. The refined Alla Bocharova, paired up with Andrey Sorokin, may not be strikingly open with her emotions, but she does demonstrate a clean and well-honed performance technique that reflects her respect towards academic tradition. The second premiere has revealed a new rising star, Sofia Matyushenskaya, who, not at all held back by her lack of high-brow training in the capital, has confidently and cheerfully handled her incredibly complex leading part, supported by the light-footed and spunky Kimin Kim.

As for Don Quixote, played by Sergey Davydov, this awkward daydreamer, crushed by his own self-reflection, is almost literally in physical pain when he realises that, at the end of the day, nobody needs him or his ideals. Even the windmills: this has to be the only production of Don Quixote where the title character was denied the pleasure of dangling about on a mill sail.

Olga Fedorchenko

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