Petipa is getting a little something for his birthday: the Leonid Yacobson Ballet Theatre from St. Petersburg has been the first to celebrate the upcoming 200th birth anniversary of the legendary ballet master. Its approach to the celebration has been... a bit unorthodox: the Theatre has decided to expand its repertoire with Don Quixote, Petipa's only ballet created especially for Moscow, which saw a major overhaul (courtesy of Aleksandr Gorsky) when the ballet master was still alive. The Danish choreographer Johan Kobborg has been invited to bring the new version to life. Incidentally, the Leonid Yacobson Ballet Theatre is the name that has, as of late, been used by the renowned Choreographic Miniatures Company. After the death of its founder, Leonid Yacobson, the theatre hit a rough patch, which lasted for well over a decade. Hopelessly lagging behind the active cultural life of St. Petersburg, it degraded from a unique creator-centric team into a nondescript little company churning out generic swans. But six years ago, it passed on to Andrian Fadeev, ex-principal from the Mariinsky Theatre. The new manager has used the time at his disposal to get rid of the sub-par renditions of classical shows and renew the cast. The improvement of the Theatre's repertoire, via the addition of Giselle by Irina Kolpakova (her first and so far only production in Russia before she left for the United States) and The Sleeping Beauty by the Frenchman Jean-Guillaume Bart, has served as ample proof of Fadeev's ambition. One of the most challenging classical ballets in history, Don Quixote overflows with dramatic solos and complicated group dances, like a pirate ship overflows with plunder. Which is why not a lot of theatres have dared to produce it until recently. At the end of last century, the public's thirst for luxurious classical shows won over professional common sense, and Don Quixote embarked on a new adventure, losing much of its artistic value along the way. Johan Kobborg, however, is one of the world's few choreographers that have enough taste and understanding to tackle this old classic, despite having been raised on completely different heritage — that of the Danish master August Bournonville. And Kobborg is the one that Andrian Fadeev has chosen to work on Don Quixote at his theatre. Having doubled as a performer and a producer for more than ten years now, Kobborg has experience in staging shows both at such titanic venues as the Bolshoi Theatre and the Royal Ballet, and at the more modest Ballett Zürich and Romanian National Opera (Opera Naţională București). The show he is offering to the Leonid Yacobson Theatre has two sources of inspiration: the dramatic narrative is derived from Petipa's original production, whereas the on-stage imagery is a call-back to the modern Moscow version of Don Quixote, which is not that well-known in St. Petersburg.
Furthermore, Kobborg has been paying attention both to the needs of today's audience and the capabilities of the dancers he is working with: the libretto has been purged of many arbitrary elements, while the cast of characters now includes Cervantes himself, in the midst of writing his novel. Plus, quite a few of the dance numbers (which can, to be quite frank, be easily removed without impacting the narrative) have been joined together and enhanced with more profound characterization. For example, the roles of the Street Dancer in Act One and Mercedes and the Dryad Queen in Act Two, in addition to the Bolero dance in Act Three, have all been entrusted to one ballerina. Kobborg's team also includes the set designer Jérôme Kaplan, who is re-imagining Don Quixote for the third time in his career, and the lighting designer Vincent Millet. The young dancers have risen up to the challenge with boisterous enthusiasm. For many of them, this is the very first Don Quixote, and they have had to master not only incredibly complex balancing postures and fouetté turns (Kobborg has heaped those even on Gamache, Kitri's luckless suitor, who traditionally only walks on-stage), but also — and most importantly! — the dying art of the pantomime, which, in this show, has been apportioned to each character aplenty. The choreographer has brought back the meaning behind some half-forgotten acts, like the Street Dancer's number with daggers; he has Svetlana Svinko glide about on tiptoe, manoeuvring between the blades and casting sultry looks both at her partners and the audience. Interestingly enough, the main roles have been subjected to the least change. This has allowed the production crew to bring over the Mariinsky principal Kimin Kim. Still recovering from his recent injury, he has not made any particularly striking stunts, but has still proven himself as a confident and reliable partner for Sofia Matyushenskaya's Kitri. This young ballerina is an alumna of the barely known Moldavian Choreographic College, but when she is on-stage, she reveals a solid training base and mastery of ballet lore. Most of the other dancers have made a similar journey towards the Don Quixote show. The Yacobson Ballet Theatre invests into honing the talent of young dancers from small-town ballet schools, refining their style with a St. Petersburg flair and entrusting them with new renditions of the classics: overhauled, dynamic, and modern. These shows are not as steeped in traditions as the academic productions of ballet Leviathans, but their winning point is their novelty and a refreshing outlook on the legendary classics.