Let the ballet snobs pound sand in the corrida if they find neither rhyme, reason, nor much musical innovation in Don Quixote: It is still that sampler of delicacies which, done right, can end the dance season on a crescendo, and on April 27, San Francisco Ballet surpassed all expectations! The fun begins when your companion of the evening points out querulously that there is a horse trailer parked at the stage door. You explain, “For the donkey.”
The ballet opens in Don Quixote’s heavily layered study, a heap of hubris. It is here that the title character conflates a mission that rattles alongside his drawn saber, an unwieldy accompaniment to the love story of Basilio (Joan Boada), the barber of Seville (though the program locates the action in Barcelona), and his beloved village bombshell, Kitri (Vanessa Zahorian). Kitri is the daughter of Lorenzo (Ricardo Bustamante). Lorenzo hopes in vain that she will marry Gamache (Myles Thatcher). Basilio is a scamp of a fellow whose sap is on the rise. Lorenzo is part of a delusional foursome, and we can’t help but be put in mind of its modern-day equivalent, the railbirds we’ve seen recently in the TV series Luck. Here the foursome consists of Don Quixote (Jim Sohm) himself, who believes in the chivalric power of his own sword, his quisling sidekick, Sancho Panza (Pascal Molat), whose delusions issue from the bottle he secrets in his knapsack, Lorenzo, wearily invested in the self-righteous prerogatives of patriarchal honor, and finally, the unsuitable suitor Gamache, who trips all over his own effete repertoire of affectations, including a few that involve mounting and dismounting the aforementioned burro. They are all going nowhere fast, albeit furiously.
As Kitri, Vanessa Zahorian channels brisk opening-night energy into casting fiery downward glances while demarcating her turf with a pointed foot. Confidence washes over every lift that ends in a one hundred and eighty-degree developpé, and the pirouettes she smilingly pulls out along a diagonal of attendant toreadors. Joan Boada as Basilio brings a peppy hair-toss of boyishness to the role, which he long ago stamped as his own during his student days in Havana, where he was admired by his peers for a facile, crowd-pleasing delivery. Subtlety arrives with the comic manipulations in the Town Square scene. Lorenzo wrenches Kitri from one of the many clinches she shares with Basilio, only to have Basilio sidle up to her best friend (Dores André), so as not to lose a moment of momentum in astonishing himself with his own charm, whereupon Gamache stumbles in, taking the opportunity to insinuate himself into the three-way traffic jam as an unwelcome fourth. The timing is impeccable, thanks to the eagle-eyed staging by Yuri Possokhov of Helgi Tomasson’s choreography.
Sarah Van Patten’s five-alarm entrance as Mercedes, in a long blue dress with fuchsia ruffles, reminds us that we’re here to see virtuosic dancing. Her partner is Pierre François Villanoba as Espada, put in for an injured Ruben Martín Cintas, and though Villanoba is several years Van Patten’s senior, their sparks ignite some of the steamiest dancing of the evening. They generate even more heat in the Tavern scene (when he is in black and she is in midnight blue), as she swallows the stage whole in long lunges and gallops, legs crossing in landings that end in a jutted hip or a deep fold inward to the floor. She gives the “Spanish back” its ultimate workout. He announces himself the matador in every held pose and swirling turn, ending in feet drawn together in parallel. The bullfight energy is present in him, even if there is no bull, or at least not as much as some productions have brought to the stage.
The townspeople blindfold Sancho Panza and toss him up and down relentlessly on a held blanket. His absence of vision is a metaphor for the town and its foibles, but Molat is a prescient character actor, and brings inner vision to the role.
If the good citizens of Seville aka Barcelona suffer from temporary blindness, the libretto offers some relief in the Roma-inspired ingenuity we see in Act II’s full-moon-lit Gypsy Camp scene. Hansuke Yamamoto as the Gypsy Leader offers tour de force clean, fast, dramatic, and air-slicing character dancing that sets the bar high for the corps de ballet to emulate. Not to be outdone, Danielle Santos as the Gypsy Woman, counters with a solo that moves from a tremulous legato to her flying low across the stage on a diagonal and ending in a split on the floor downstage left. Kitri gives herself over to Basilio in a moonlight pas de deux. The leaderless ragtag cavalry of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Lorenzo and Gamache arrives with the horse and donkey, the four fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. A puppet show distracts them as the lovers flee. The moon brightens, lightning strikes, and the windmill goes into full throttle, detonated by gypsy bravura.
In the Driads scene, Don Quixote loses what little consciousness he has, and a dream comes to him. In it, driads in absinthe tutus fill a landscape of greenery in a fantastic glade. Russet-haired Clara Blanco, a winged Cupid in a tutu of green tulle, moves downstage, shimmering with clarity and abundant hope. The audience recognizes her by her lightness, sweet smile, and applauds her entrance even before she has begun to work her magic on the quixotic don. Her light, bright, darting solo is an instruction to the corps de ballet behind her. They follow her lead, keeping arms raised and light throughout. The Queen of Driads, danced by Sofiane Sylve follows. One gets the sense that her body is not warm enough to caress the air with the épaulement required of the much-anticipated balloné-defined variation. As she moves into her chaîné and piqué turns, however, she gains heat, and ends her solo triumphantly. A confusing element is the return of Kitri, in a silvery tutu here, to dance yet again. This is overkill, and Zahorian seems to balk at the redundancy. Blanco returns with discretionary timing, adroit directional shifts, and jewel-like eyes foretelling where her feet will take her. A shallow assessment of Blanco might consign her to “short-girl” roles, even though she has worked assiduously over the years to lengthen her line, with the splendid results that she has turned into a short dancer who casts a long, authoritative, and memorable shadow. As with the gypsies, and the toreadors, the Driad sequence showcases the virtuosity of the women’s corps de ballet.
The final act Wedding scene benefits from the accumulated improvements in this year’s version, with the strongest corps de ballet in memory draped in sizzling colors, thoughtful, careful staging, and a cast that has eyes everywhere. When it is time for the famous grand pas and accompanying variations, fatigue doesn’t prevent Zahorian from pulling in from her 32 fouettés to bring us, doubles, triples, and was that a quadruple pirouette from á la seconde at the end? Her foot brushes the floor zestily as she brings it into grand battement. She and Boada are on every note of the Minkus score when he tosses her up lightly twice, catches her and swoops her into a fish dive before he delivers a perfect pitch men’s variation with a ménège so organic that we don’t even notice the preparation that alerts us, “One ménège coming up!”
While the entire audience stood applauding in adulation, this reviewer dashed out the door to tell it all to her computer.
San Francisco Ballet’s Don Quixote will run from April 27-May 6, at the War Memorial Opera House. Click here for more information.