Carlos Acosta’s Don Quixote is reviewed through today’s lens: could the Royal Ballet dance any better?

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Minkus (arr. and orch. Martin Yates), Don Quixote: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Valery Ovsyanikov (conductor). Recorded live (directed by Ross MacGibbon) at the Royal Opera House, London, 7.11.2023 and seen at Everyman Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex. 13.11.2023. (JPr)

Matthew Ball as Basilio in Don Quixote © Andrej Uspenski

As their press release after this performance of Carlos Acosta’s ten-year-old production of Don Quixote explained: ‘The Royal Opera House was delighted to host a specially invited audience of NHS workers, teachers, its Songs for Ukraine Chorus, and members of the Royal Ballet School last night to bring together and celebrate the many individuals, groups and schools the Royal Opera House works with up and down the UK to place ballet and opera at the heart of communities. Celebrating the achievements of the audience, including the 75th year milestone for the NHS, was further amplified by the attendance of Their Majesties King Charles III and Queen Camilla in their first Royal Opera House visit since the Coronation.’

What fun was has by all since as Gary Avis (Don Quixote) said – in a pre-recorded introduction audiences saw – ‘Carlos expects from dancers, vitality, spontaneity and energy. He wants not only his audience, but he also wants his dancers, to feel they’re part of this story and this journey. He has this great ability of coming into a room throwing energy at us and then I feel we throw the energy back at him. And I feel that’s a really great way of working because you all feel you’re part of this amazing journey of the putting this ballet together.’ Hearing this and watching Carlos Acosta work on film and listening to his backstage interview (since he was present for this special performance) it is not a surprise that this legendary dancer is now such a success as director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

This is not my first Don Quixote (and hopefully not my last!) and the story of the nineteenth-century Marius Petipa-Ludwig Minkus ballet is a bit if a muddle and even Gary Avis said he wasn’t sure what Don Quixote’s quest was! What we have now is based on an 1869 Bolshoi play staged by Petipa which concentrated on a minor incident from Miguel de Cervantes’s original novel. Kitri, a young girl, loves Basilio, a poor barber, and rejects her father’s plan to marry her off to a rich nobleman. Now and then Don Quixote and his comic sidekick, Sancho Panza, wander into the story mainly for Don Quixote to confuse Kitri with Dulcinea, his dream lady ‘of his heart’. Basically, it is a classical showcase for any ballet company, with the demandingly famous Act III pas de deux just the final showstopper in an evening of showstoppers … and The Royal Ballet had a great evening and – glossing over the odd mishap – can rarely have danced it better.

This Don Quixote is the first full-length classical ballet Carlos Acosta had ever staged. When interviewed he emphasised ‘The whole concept is to review a classic through the lens of today’ and this is why there is less pure classicism, more modern dance, all the handclapping and shouts of ‘Viva!’ and ‘Olé!’, as well as the moving houses. Although Acosta’s choreography has more affable charm than red-blooded passion, he gives us is a dance fiesta with lots of dancing for dancing’s sake and despite there being even less storytelling than usual, I think nobody new to the ballet in the opera house or cinemas would fail to understand what was supposed to be happening. The delightful and ever-smiling Kitri is clearly in love with Basilio from the start so there is little in the way of romantic development. Acosta definitely inflates the contribution of the male dancers in a way Nureyev always did with in his choreography; however, the continuous flamenco shaping becomes a little repetitive especially during the relentless pyrotechnics of the first act (which still drags) and certainly long before the end of the ballet.

Haunted by the spectre of Dulcinea – as well as some more ghoulish ones – Don Quixote is obsessed with the valiant deeds he reads about and with an upright from his four-poster bed as a lance and a fruit bowl as a helmet he sets off on his own chivalrous adventure to win the lady of his dreams. Riding a decrepit horse – less War Horse and more haystack! –  Don Quixote believes is real but nobody else does, he is accompanied by his roly-poly, ne’er-do-well squire, Sancho Panza. Gary Avis is a more nuanced Don Quixote than you sometimes see, and because he is less cartoonish, Avis is more believable and touching as this deluded figure. From a rather cramped attic everything opens up for the town square and we now see the best of Tim Hately’s sun-bleached, mobile Spanish set designs and flamboyant costumes for La Mancha in the seventeenth century. All the work making the reactions of the onlookers as natural as possible is evidenced by their joie de vivre as Kitri (Mayara Magri) and Basilio (Matthew Ball) whirl away on the first of the solos and duets that pepper the ballet. Basilio constantly teases Kitri and tries to make her jealous and Kitri is either smiling or being annoyed with Basilio before always forgiving him in the end. Calvin Richardson’s Espada catches the eye as the typical caricature of an ostentatiously macho, preening toreador and dances with the vivacious Leticia Dias as Mercedes, a street dancer. James Hay is splendid as the dandified nobleman, Gamache, revelling in the wonderful physical comedy he has been allowed and with more than a touch of the Carry Ons about him.

Act II is eventually quieter and immensely lyrical as we reach the repose of the garden of the dryads, and this is a great relief from all the earlier frantic movement. Before that in the gypsy encampment we get some atmospheric new music to Minkus’s themes by Martin Yates for onstage flamenco guitars. There is a characterful gypsy dance for Hannah Grenfell and a bare-chested Leo Dixon though it soon becomes clear that there is little difference between any of the fandangoing or ‘flamenco-ing’ for the townsfolk, toreadors or gypsies in this Don Quixote. On screen the monstrous windmill which meanders across the stage is lost in the gloom and when Don Quixote faces off against it nothing much happens and he is discovered collapsed to the ground before, half-consciously, entering the dreamworld of the dryads. Here Magri (as Dulcinea), Annette Buvoli (the Queen), Isabella Gasparini (Amour) and the enchanting ensemble of pastel-shaded fairies dance delightfully against a backcloth of huge flowers.

Mayara Magri (Kitri) and Matthew Ball (Basilio) © Andrej Uspenski

The third act begins with a gloomy candle-lit tavern scene reminiscent of Carmen as a ballet. Dias’s Mercedes is back and dances in competition with Magri’s Kitri and Richardson’s seemingly ever-potent Espada is still dramatically stomping around – in a good way – more like the bull than the toreador. Ball goes OTT in a very funny death-by-barber’s-razor scene and Hay’s Gamache woos and loses Kitri but wins – with an expensive ring – a tavern girl. The final pas de deux cannot fail and Magri, who has been an expressively acted Kitri, makes light of most of all the leaping and spinning, dancing with musicality, artistry and control. As for Ball he is perhaps now my favourite male dancer on the Royal Ballet’s roster; whereas the Russian Vadim Muntargirov looks increasing like a self-effacing English dancer, Ball, a Liverpudlian, looks more and more flamboyantly Russian every time I see him. Ball exuded charisma and charm as Basilio and revealed the breadth of his marvellous technique in the many big, yet flawlessly executed, jumps, turns, and partnering sequences for his character (including Kitri’s lifts on high in Act I with just one hand which are held for an astonishingly long time). There is great chemistry between Magri and Ball as you would expect from partners offstage as well as on it.

With the projection and sound at the Everyman Cinema as excellent as you could ever expect it to be, what we hear from the orchestra under Valery Ovsyanikov (of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre) brings out all the infectious, foot-tapping ‘Spanish’ rhythms needed to accompany the dynamic movement we see on the stage. There are several virtuosic moments from the musicians of the Royal Opera House orchestra, chiefly from the now-principal guest concert master, Vasko Vassilev.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the ROH’s current cinema season click here.

Production and Choreography – Carlos Acosta after Marius Petipa
Designer – Tim Hatley
Lighting designer – Hugh Vanstone
Staging – Christopher Saunders

Don Quixote – Gary Avis
Sancho Panza – Liam Boswell
Lorenzo – Thomas Whitehead
Kitri – Mayara Magri
Basilio – Matthew Ball
Gamache – James Hay
Espada – Calvin Richardson
Mercedes – Leticia Dias
Dulcinea – Nadia Mullova-Barley
Kitri’s Friends – Sophie Allnatt, Sae Maeda
Two Matadors – David Donnelly, Joseph Sissens
Gypsy Couple – Hannah Grennell, Leo Dixon
The Queen of the Dryads – Annette Buvoli
Amour – Isabella Gasparini
Fandango Couple – Mica Bradbury, Lukas B. Brændsrød
Guitarists – Forbes Henderson, Daniel Thomas, Nigel Woodhouse, Tom Ellis

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