In Paris: Nureyev’s Don Quixote is a true celebration of dance without the slightest false step

FranceFrance Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote: Paris Opera Ballet, Orchestra of the Paris National Opera / Gavriel Heine (conductor). Transmitted live (directed by François Roussillon) from the Opéra Bastille, Paris, 2.4.2024. (JPr)

Paul Marque (Basilio) and Sae Eun Park (Kitri)

(Repeating myself) it is thanks to the ballet companies in Vienna, Milan and here in Paris that it is possible to appreciate Rudolf Nureyev’s transformative influence on dance; not only through his artistic legacy as a performer – the like of which we are yet to see again – but also thanks to his enduring choreographies. The esteem Paris still holds him in was reflected in the word ‘respect’ used about the steps he created in this Don Quixote. Only in the UK does he appear to be significantly overlooked and surely The Royal Ballet could restage his 1968 The Nutcracker (the first ballet I saw at Covent Garden) as an alternative to their over-familiar version by Sir Peter Wright. Also, Nureyev’s 1975 The Sleeping Beauty and 1977 Romeo and Juliet – I saw both many times – have recently vanished from the repertory of English National Ballet.

In the early 1980s I saw Nureyev dance in his legendary Swan Lake for Vienna State Ballet which he created in 1964 and which they still perform and is to be revived there later this season. In Milan they will soon dance Nureyev’s La Bayadère (created for Paris in 1992) but that only got to La Scala in December 2021. In Paris they are dancing his 1981 Don Quixote which was restaged there in 2002 with sets by Alexandre Beliaev and costumes by Elena Rivkina.

Once again watching this Don Quixote it is blatantly obvious how much – technically – Nureyev demands of the dancers, and along with all the (authentic?) Spanish shaping, it is full of his trademark demanding balances, intricate footwork and armography. I suspect there are weaknesses in our homegrown companies which means it might be a step too far (!) for them. The principal dancers in Paris’s Don Quixote barely pause for breath over three acts and look as fresh at the end as they did at the start.

No one goes to see Don Quixote as a ballet for the story! Originally, it is a nineteenth-century Marius Petipa-Ludwig Minkus warhorse and what we now see is based on an 1869 Bolshoi comic play staged by Petipa with Minkus’s music that concentrated on a minor incident from Miguel de Cervantes’s original seventeenth-century novel. It is merely the love story of Kitri, a young girl, and Basilio, a poor barber, and her rejection of being forced to marry a rich nobleman, Gamache. Wandering into the story from time to time is the Don Quixote and his comic sidekick, Sancho Panza, mainly for Don Quixote – who I have seen described as an ‘idealist from another age’ – to confuse Kitri with Dulcinea, his dream lady ‘of his heart’. It is a classical showcase for any ballet company, with the demanding Act III grand pas de deux just being the final showstopper in an evening of showstoppers.

It all looks very cinematic on the huge stage of Paris’s Opéra Bastille and François Roussillon’s camerawork pulls back more than some directors do to show us the bigger picture. That everything is conceived on a grand scale is evident from the brief prologue set in Don Quixote’s huge, dimly lit, reasonably well-furnished bed chamber somewhere inside a castle. There the ageing nobleman – with a metal hand washing bowl on his head, sword and lance – enlists his gluttonous servant Sancho Panza to accompany him on his quest to perform feats of chivalry and win the heart of his ideal woman, Dulcinea, who has appeared to him in a vision. Neither the willowy Yann Chailloux, exuding the appropriate self-righteous pomposity as Don Quixote, or Fabian Revillion, as a jovial, reasonably well-upholstered and slightly disreputable Friar Tuck-like Sancho Panza, look as old as they are sometimes shown to be.

From this point on we become immersed in the exotic and colourful world of a Spanish and Moorish-influenced city, nominally Barcelona, with its bustling public square; more possibly a castle courtyard since it is fringed by huge towers with a valley shown at the back. From the very start, Nureyev’s exuberant choreography for the ensemble numbers demands your attention and this dancing maelstrom requires the greatest virtuosity, as well as some compelling acting from the gaggle of quirky characters we are introduced to. The close-up camerawork reveals interesting detail: at one point Don Quixote kisses Kitri’s hand and you see her gesture to Basilio as if saying ‘That’s how to treat a lady.’ Kitri is quite a modern young woman in the way she stands up to her father as he tries to force her on Gamache. Daniel Stokes as the foppish Gamache is rather too prissy – for want of a less acceptable word – to be really PC for 2024 and clearly is first cousin to the umbrella-wielding Alain in Sir Frederick Ashton’s La fille mal gardée. The first act ends with two astonishing one arm lifts for Kitri and Basilio at the conclusion of their somewhat extended pas de deux immediately before they escape those marriage plans her father, Lorenzo (a rather piratical-looking Sébastien Bertaud), has for Kitri: though they exit pursued by Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Gamache and Lorenzo.

Sae Eun Park’s Kitri is confident high-spirited and playful – a highlight being her exuberant and wickedly-fast castanet variation – while she later transforms into something softer and more ethereal as the vision of Dulcinea in the Dryads’ scene. Park was partnered by the engaging Paul Marque who impresses with his boyish charm, disarming smile and ebullient virtuosity. It was the first time Park and Marque had danced their roles together but the chemistry between them was delightfully believable.

As Act II begins the stage is dominated by two huge windmills: Kitri and Basilio get a languidly beautiful love duet before they are discovered by some gypsies who eventually sell them some clothes and allow them to hide from their pursuers disguised as gypsies themselves. A puppet theatre is brought on the stage where young dancers (I assume) play out the story of Kitri and Basilio and mock Gamache. Believing Kitri/Dulcinea to be in danger Don Quixote tries to come to her aid and he destroys the theatre before attacking a windmill which he believes to be a gigantic enemy and gets wounded for his pains.

Phantom figures and some raggedy umbrellas being opened haunt Don Quixote’s dreams and there is the stunning illusion of a ‘floating’ Kitri/Dulcinea. We are quickly transported to an enchanted forest where the Queen of the Dryads – the elegant, somewhat impassive Héloïse Bourdon – presents Don Quixote to Dulcinea. There is dancing from all concerned of crisp, crystalline purity with Silvia Saint-Martin catching the eye as Cupid and as a bell tolls the dryads drift away with more than a hint of the swans in Swan Lake.

Roxane Stojanov (Street Dancer) and Florent Melac (Espada) © Yonathan Kellerman

Act III begins with a smoky tavern scene which with all the flamenco is reminiscent of a ballet version of Carmen, especially since Florent Melac’s toreador Espada (who we first met swirling his cape with his fellow toreadors in Act I) returns to duet with Roxane Stojanov’s street dancer. Melac’s smouldering, hot-blooded Espada dramatically stomps around – in a good way – more like the actual bull whilst Stojanov dances with considerable flair. To be truthful I have seen this scene better done as it appears in an inordinate rush to get to the grand pas de deux finale. More could have been made of Basilio’s ‘death’ scene and I am not certain those new to the ballet would entirely follow what was going on during the fake suicide. Because Lorenzo is still determined that Kitri should marry Gamache, Kitri asks Don Quixote to help them. He forces Lorenzo to allow Kitri to marry the ‘dying’ Basilio who then proceeds to make a miraculous recovery. Gamache is seething and his duel with Don Quixote is a bit of a mess before ending with Gamache’s utter humiliation.

We are now back in the ‘courtyard’ at nighttime for the spirited wedding pas de deux which featured some rock-solid balances and well-executed fouettés en tournant from Sae Eun Park and whilst Paul Marque was challenged by the changes of direction Nureyev demanded he otherwise danced with panache. The athleticism of Marque’s high-flying leaps (with soft landings), spins and turns were never in doubt and his partnering was excellent.

After Don Quixote is caught professing his love for a disguised Gamache and humiliated himself this time he sets off after Gamache with the loyal Sancho Panza. Everyone else joins in with the clapping, twirling, high-energy and joyful – perpetuum mobile-like – end to the ballet.

As Kitri and Basilio’s friends, townsfolk, bullfighters, gypsies and dryads, the corps de ballet excelled; dancing with consummate synchronicity when required and giving their characters significant elements of individuality. The spirit and strength-in-depth of the Paris Opera Ballet shone through this performance. Minkus’s music – in its effervescent orchestration by John Lanchbery – brought a sense of ebullience and all the necessary Spanish colours to the dynamic movement we saw from the dancers in this revival of Don Quixote which did Rudolf Nureyev proud. Under American conductor Gavriel Heine, the Orchestra of the Paris National Opera sounded superb.

Inspired by Marius Petipa’s choreography, Nureyev’s Don Quixote is a true celebration of dance without the slightest false note (step?).

Jim Pritchard

Featured Image: Paul Marque (Basilio) © Yonathan Kellerman

Choreography and Direction – Rudolf Nureyev
Music – Ludwig Minkus (arranged by John Lanchbery)
Libretto – Miguel de Cervantès
Set design – Alexandre Beliaev
Costume design – Elena Rivkina
Lighting design – Philippe Albaric

Kitri – Sae Eun Park
Basilio – Paul Marque
Don Quixote – Yann Chailloux
Sancho Panza – Fabien Revillion
Lorenzo – Sébastien Bertaud
Gamache – Daniel Stokes
Espada – Florent Melac
The Street Dancer – Roxane Stojanov
The Queen of The Dryads – Héloïse Bourdon
Cupid – Silvia Saint-Martin
The Bridesmaid – Inès Mcintosh
A Gypsy Chief – Francesco Mura
Kitri’s Friends – Camille Bon, Clémence Gross

1 thought on “In Paris: Nureyev’s <i>Don Quixote</i> is a true celebration of dance without the slightest false step”

  1. Nureyev was one of the most musical dancers, if not the single most musical dancer, among the stars of ballet. This, of course, showed in his dancing as well as in his choreographic output.
    A long time ago I played in the Royal Ballet orchestra and witnessed Nureyev relaxing by playing the piano to a good standard. When he could no longer dance (and by when he admitted it), he conducted an orchestra.


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