Carlos Acosta’s Quest For The Don Quixote Of His Dreams

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Minkus (arr. Martin Yates), Don Quixote: Soloists, Corps de ballet and Royal Opera House Orchestra / Martin Yates (conductor). Broadcast to the Odeon Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex. 16.10.2013. (JPr)


Carlos Acosta (Basilio) (c) Johan Persson

Original Choreography: Marius Petipa
Production and Choreography: Carlos Acosta
Original Music: Ludwig Minkus
Arrangement and Orchestration: Martin Yates
Designs: Tim Hatley
Lighting design: Hugh Vanstone

Don Quixote: Christopher Saunders
Sancho Panza: Philip Mosley
Lorenzo: Gary Avis
Kitri: Marialena Nuñez
Basilio: Carlos Acosta
Gamache: Bennet Gartside
Espada: Ryoichi Hirano
Mercedes: Laura Morera
The Queen of the Dryads: Melissa Hamilton
Amour: Elizabeth Harrod
Gypsies: Itziar Mendizabal and Thomas Whitehead

I doubt anyone ever goes to Don Quixote for the story. It is, originally, a nineteenth-century Marius Petipa-Ludwig Minkus warhorse of a ballet. What we now see is based on an 1869 Bolshoi play staged by Petipa that concentrated on a minor incident from Miguel de Cervantes’ original novel. It is the story of the love of Kitri, a young girl, for Basilio, a poor barber, and her rejection of a forced marriage to a rich nobleman. Now and then the Don and his comic sidekick, Sancho Panza, wander into the story mainly for Quixote to confuse Kitri with Dulcinea, his dream lady ‘of his heart’. It is basically a classical showcase for any ballet company, with the demandingly famous Act III pas de deux just being the final show-stopper in an evening of show-stoppers.

This Don Quixote is the first full-length classical ballet Carlos Acosta, perhaps the leading male dancer of his generation, has staged. He said in a filmed backstage interview how he has danced the role of Don Basilio throughout the world since the start of his career over twenty years ago. As he later went on to say, his idea was to have less pure classicism, more modern dance, hand-clapping and ‘Olé!-ing. Generally, what Acosta gives us is a bravura feast – a fiesta! – for lovers of dance for dancing’s sake because there is even less storytelling than usual. The delightful and ever-smiling Kitri (Marialena Nuñez) is clearly in love with Acosta’s Basilio from the start so there is little in the way of romantic development. Acosta’s choreography certainly inflates the contribution of the men in a way Nureyev always did in his productions, but overall the continuous very energetic flamenco shaping is noticeable repetitive by the end of the evening.

One of his better plot changes is to introduce the spectre of Dulcinea – as well as some more ghoulish ones – to haunt a rather youthful looking Don Quixote (Christopher Saunders) in the prologue. This much improves this usual rather perfunctory scene and provides the ‘hero’ of the story with the motivation – and an upright from his four-poster bed as a lance – for his chivalrous adventures that he hopes will win for him the lady of his dreams. He is accompanied, of course, by his roly-poly squire, Sancho Panza (Philip Mosley) – here looking a dead ringer for Luciano Pavarotti!

From the Don’s rather cramped attic everything opens up for the town square and we now see the best of Tim Hately’s sun-bleached Spanish set designs and flamboyant costumes for seventeenth-century La Mancha. On the cinema screen the houses’ toy-theatre-like two-dimensional appearance was fine because all it was doing was providing a backdrop for the dance the cameras concentrated on. A lot of time has obviously been spent on making the reactions of the townsfolk as natural as possible but soon Kitri and Basilio are whirling away on the first of the solos and duets that pepper the ballet. Throughout Basilio is intent on teasing Kitri and making her jealous and if Kitri is not forever smiling, she is pretending to be annoyed by Basilio before constantly forgiving him. Ryoichi Hirano’s Espada catches the eye as a typical caricature of a toreador and Bennet Gartside is splendid as the foppish nobleman, Gamache, revelling in some wonderful physical comedy he has been allowed.

As if often the case with Don Quixote the pyrotechniques can seem so relentless during Act I and most of Act II that the quieter, immensely lyrical, repose of the garden of the dryads is a great relief from all the otherwise frantic movement. In the gypsy encampment we heard some new music to Minkus’s themes by Martin Yates (that he spoke of during a filmed interview) for the onstage flamenco guitars. There is a characterful gypsy dance from Itziar Mendizabal and Thomas Whitehead but it soon becomes clear that there is very little distinction between all the ‘flamenco-ing’ the townsfolk, toreadors or gypsies do in this Don Quixote. On screen the huge Dalek-like Windmill that meandered on stage was lost in some gloom and Quixote’s ‘challenge’ was botched as he just collapses to the ground and half-consciously enters the dream world of the Dryads. Here Nuñez (Dulcinea), Melissa Hamilton (the Queen), Elizabeth Harrod (Amour) and the enchanting ensemble of fairies dance very prettily against a backcloth of huge chrysanthemums.

Act 3 begins with a gloomy candle-lit tavern scene slightly reminiscent of a ballet version of Carmen. The rather sexy Mendizabal is back and dances in competition with Nuñez on the benches and the potent Hirano’s Espada dramatically stomps around – in a good way – more like the bull than the toreador. Acosta goes OTT in a very funny death-by-barber’s-razor scene and Garside’s Gamache reminded me more and more of Charles Hawtrey, of Carry On fame, as he woos and loses Kitri but wins – with an expensive ring – a tavern girl. The final pas de deux cannot fail and Nuñez makes light of all the leaping and spinning. As for Acosta, he remains a wonderfully relaxed performer who partners Nuñez superbly – and there is great chemistry between them. Maybe it was just the angle of filming but at 40 he doesn’t seem to have much of a jump left in him but everything else he does is very fast, stylish, precise and elegant. I know he has always spoken about his fear of injury at this stage of his career and – with the greatest respect – I just wonder whether he is ‘playing it safe’ – or feels past the point of having to challenge himself too much.

Projection and sound at the Odeon Chelmsford was excellent: the orchestra under Martin Yates provided the suitable Spanish colours for all the dynamic movement we often saw on stage. Whether his new arrangement and orchestration has help or hindered Minkus is difficult to say – but since Carlos Acosta’s choreography is more affable charm than red-blooded passion – the music we heard fitted what was seen perfectly adequately.

Strangely there was only a brief mention of the plot before each act and I wonder whether this informed the watching audience sufficiently about what they would see. This relies on the fact that they will read the story on the cast sheet that is handed out – which may or may not happen – a few minutes explaining what will be seen next is something to think about for next time I believe.

The Royal Ballet have not been able to give me the opportunity to review their work at Covent Garden whilst I have been a regular visitor to their rival companies such as Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet. Based on the technical virtuosity, exuberance and commitment on display they have nothing to hide. Of course here the cameras were on them – and quite literally in fact because of former Royal Ballet dancer, Ross MacGibbon’s close-up direction for cinema. It was though the audience were watching from the first row of the stalls that cost over £100 in the theatre but is a bargain at £15 in the cinema. However, I hope Chelmsford was not typical of the cinema audiences throughout the UK as – in a very well-filled auditorium – there were few people present less than 50 years old and nobody of school age as far as I could see. Something really must be done to use these screenings to attract a younger generation to ballet (and opera) before it is too late. If relatively cheap cinemas tickets can’t do it, what can? Live cinema can never replace the excitement and immediacy of actually being in the theatre, but it is a great – and affordable – alternative for those unable to do so.

Jim Pritchard

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