Outside of the ballet world, the name “Don Quixote” conjures up images of an addled, would-be knight and his roly-poly counterpart, Sancho Panza, who pursue adventure in the name of chivalry, only to be thwarted by misguided love and an uncooperative windmill. At least that’s true for anyone who has read the classic novel by Miguel de Cervantes or seen the musical Man of La Mancha, adapted for both the stage and film. But in the ballet Don Quixote, the mismatched adventurers—the “knight of the woeful countenance” and his reluctant squire—play supporting roles. Instead, it’s the love story of Kitri, an innkeeper’s daughter, and Basilio, the town barber, that takes center stage.
Don Quixote first took the stage at San Francisco Ballet in 2003, choreographed by Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov, then a principal dancer and now SF Ballet’s resident choreographer. Because Possokhov grew up with Don Quixote, dancing various roles as a student at the Bolshoi, his memories of the ballet yielded valuable details that he and Tomasson incorporated into the work. (Recently Possokhov revisited the ballet on his own; his version of Don Quixote premiered at Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet last October.) As Tomasson said before the 2003 premiere, one of the most appealing aspects of this ballet is “the joy it gives you to watch, and to dance. You could say it’s a little bit of a farce. It’s upbeat; it’s fun. It’s nothing dramatic or psychological.”
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote (© Erik Tomasson)
In this season’s new production, all that fun happens in 19th-century Spain, brought to life with scenery and costumes by designer Martin Pakledinaz. Pakledinaz has more background in opera and musical theater than in dance (he won Tony Awards for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Kiss Me Kate), but he considers the theatrical forms “more alike than you would think,” he said in a promotional video made for SF Ballet. “But of course the physicality of dance is its own important thing. We’re constantly trying to figure out a way to show the historic perspective and yet still help the dancers be as flexible and as comfortable as possible.”
Like last season’s Coppélia, Don Quixote is a comedic ballet. It’s filled with fun, physical humor, and fiery dancing, all topped off with a wedding—a virtuosic celebration often performed as a stand-alone ballet titled Kitri’s Wedding. But the full ballet offers much more than a fabulous finish. It’s a romantic comedy done ballet style, dressed up in tutus, tiered Spanish-style dresses, and bolero jackets, peopled with passionate young lovers, flirtatious and rowdy townspeople, dashing toreadors, the foolish and foppish Gamache, a band of Gypsies, and even Cupid and her Driads (in a romantic dream sequence in which Don Quixote sees Kitri as his idealized true love, Dulcinea). There’s even a horse or two.
Cervantes’ Don Quixote (published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615, as The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and considered the first modern novel) had been captivating readers for well over a century when the first ballet version was presented. That was in Vienna, in 1740, choreographed by Franz Hilverding. Version after version followed: Jean-George Noverre’s in 1768, Charles-Louis Didelot’s in 1828; Paul Taglioni’s in 1850. Of the 20th-century versions, George Balanchine’s is probably the best known, mostly for the perceived parallel between Don Quixote’s love for his Dulcinea and the choreographer’s for his muse, Suzanne Farrell. But the most influential version is the one by the great French choreographer Marius Petipa. He staged Don Quixote in Moscow in 1869, making changes and adding more music for a St. Petersburg production in 1871. Alexander Gorsky restaged Petipa’s version in Moscow in 1900 and again in St. Petersburg two years later, and it is this Petipa/Gorsky version that has endured. And it’s the one that Tomasson and Possokhov based their production on.
Tomasson looks at Petipa’s libretto as a ballet version of commedia dell’arte, a type of dramatic improvisation popular throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. It relied on stock character types to enact variations on recurring themes, such as a father who tries to marry off his daughter to a moneyed, older gent. She’s in love with someone else, of course. Translating that plot to Don Quixote, we find Kitri, who’s in love with Basilio, rejecting Gamache, her father’s choice for her. And Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s squire, is essentially a Zanni, a stock servant character. Commedia dell’arte always involved healthy doses of deception, chase scenes, and physical humor, and Tomasson says he finds “a lot of similarities. The chasing, Harlequin taking Columbine away—it’s the same thing here. They just happen to be in Don Quixote’s story.”
Tomasson is not one to sacrifice innovation in honoring tradition, so he and Possokhov made some changes that serve the story while remaining true to the original’s intent. To enhance the story Tomasson choreographed an intimate pas de deux for Kitri and Basilio in the second act, giving the lovers a quiet moment together at the Gypsy camp. He also expanded the role of the Gypsy Queen with a solo. Then, rather than ending with the grand pas de deux and Don Quixote’s exit as some versions do, Tomasson added music (by Czech composer Léon Minkus, who wrote the ballet’s score) that extends the wedding festivities. It’s a fitting finale for such a boisterous ballet.
Minkus, a contemporary of Tchaikovsky, spent much of his career composing for the ballet. Born in 1826 in the Austrian Empire (in either Vienna or Brno, now in the Czech Republic), Minkus launched his career in Paris and spent most of his career in Russia. In 1872 he took the post of ballet composer for the imperial theaters in St. Petersburg, a position granted to him after the success of Don Quixote. His most famous ballet compositions are Arthur St.-Léon’s 1866 La Source (composed with Léo Delibes); new music for Petipa’s 1881 revival of Paquita (the Pas de Trois and Grand Pas Classique); and Petipa’s 1877 La Bayadère. He also reorchestrated Adolphe Adam’s original score for Giselle and wrote additional music for revivals of the ballet, most of which have been integrated into Adam’s composition. And then there was Don Quixote. When Petipa restaged the ballet in St. Petersburg in 1871, Minkus reworked his original score into the now familiar Spanish-themed ballet music, which won him accolades.
In planning to stage Don Quixote again, Tomasson decided the time had come to give the Company its own production. In 2003 the sets and costumes were rented from the Royal Danish Ballet, and when the production turned out to be such a success, says Tomasson, “we had to ship it back and forth again, and this became an expensive venture. Some years ago we said it would be great if we could build our own production and base it on what Yuri and I had done choreographically.” When that decision was made, Tomasson immediately turned to Pakledinaz to design the ballet. “Martin and I had done a few other pieces together, and we understand one another,” he says. “His ideas and my ideas seem to gel. It’s a collaboration, and Martin is very, very good at that.”
Tomasson’s priority in terms of designs for this production was to allow things to flow, especially in the second act’s scene transitions. “The second act is in three sections,” says Tomasson, “and I’d like it to keep going as much as possible, at the same pace and rhythm” as the rest of the ballet, without bringing in the curtain and playing transitional music. “What I’m aiming for is a smooth transition from the Gypsy camp into the Vision.”
Pakledinaz’s most important resources for Don Quixote were “the visuals of Spain, both the cities and the countryside, not only of La Mancha but Andalusia,” he said in the SF Ballet video interview. “[The story] technically takes place in the larger cities of Sevilla, Barcelona, but we decided to create our own village.” He is always influenced by artists, he says, and for Don Quixote, even though it’s a 19th-century ballet, he turned to some 17th-century sources. “I’ve always been a big fan of the paintings of [Francisco] de Zurbaran and [Jusepe] de Ribera,” he says.
Working with Tomasson is “very intense in a friendly way,” Pakledinaz said. Together they brainstormed how best to tell the story, clarifying characters and relationships through entrances and exits, costuming, and even the palette. Tomasson wanted to stick to the traditional, and Pakledinaz responded with what he described as “a dusty study where we discover Don Quixote; a bright, Spanish, earth-toned plaza; and a plain, barren terrain with a spooky tree and a windmill.” In his creative process, the sets came before the costumes. “You have to find out what your world is before you know who the people are that inhabit it.” For example, if he chooses colors for the costumes first, he said, “then I’m tying down the set.” In this ballet “you have a lot of places to go. You have to find those places before you know who’s inside of them.”
Along with his research on Spain and art, Pakledinaz said he “constantly referenced the previous production, sometimes purely for the choreography and sometimes to see if I felt that the scenic changes or the costume changes needed to be the same or could be readdressed.” In redeveloping a classic, he said, it’s important to “drop what you’ve seen and try to make it your original production.”
The dancers, too, have to make the ballet their own. For Principal Dancer Vanessa Zahorian, dancing Kitri was a big step in 2003. “By then I’d probably done Romeo and Juliet, maybe The Sleeping Beauty,” she says. “And so this was a dissection—it still is, with the full-lengths.” Now that she’s danced it many times and with various partners, she approaches the role differently, focusing more on the character than the technique. “I can play with it a little bit now. I think characterization is very important in my career right now, and really showing the audience what the story is about.”
Compared to The Sleeping Beauty, which Zahorian says is “all technique, all control and balance and internal energy,” Don Quixote is lighter. But, she adds, “there’s a fine line between being very pizzazzy and showy and being contained, because you don't want to be too light. Somebody gave me that correction the last time I did it, and it was wild for me because I perceive myself as being a shy person. So to have somebody say, ‘Tame it down a little bit, Vanessa,’ I thought, ‘Wow! It’s a good thing, because I’m taking it to that next level.’ ” For her approach this time, she’s “fine-tuning,” says Zahorian. “That’s my whole approach to everything I’m doing at this moment—finding little things that incorporate or tell even a bigger story.”
Part of the fun for Zahorian is practicing her fan technique with SF Ballet School Associate Director Lola D’Avila. “Every time she’s like, ‘What are we going to do different? Let’s do something different,’" says Zahorian. “She’s very inspiring with all these little things.” Still, mishaps with props do happen, and the fans are no exception. When Zahorian was called in mid-performance to replace the injured Tina LeBlanc (then a principal dancer), “I was like, ‘Okay, I was just at home five minutes ago and now I’m onstage,’ ” she says. “So I happened to drop my fan and Sancho Panza picked it up and the audience cracked up.”
Another Kitri this season is Principal Dancer Maria Kochetkova. Although this will be her first season dancing the SF Ballet production, she’s no stranger to the role of Kitri, having danced it as a guest artist more times than she can count. And after dancing in so many productions, including in Russia and Japan, now she is “kind of settled” in the role, she says. “For me it’s important to do something a few times, to get the different inspirations.” What she has settled on, she says, is a classical interpretation. “I think it comes from [Ekaterina] Maximova, my idol of Kitri when I was growing up. [Maya] Plisetskaya does it a little bit more Carmen-like, more womanish, maybe. I like it more classical; it suits me. Of course there is a style, but you decide how playful she is, how serious, how she reacts to certain things.” Kochetkova’s Kitri is “flirtatious, definitely playful,” she says. “It’s a comedy, so it shouldn’t be serious; even the serious is funny, like when she thinks Basilio is dead.”
One of those Basilios is Principal Dancer Joan Boada, who had danced the role many times (including with National Ballet of Cuba when he was an 18-year-old corps de ballet dancer, National Ballet of the Philippines, and in a shorter version of the ballet in Mexico) before doing the 2003 SF Ballet production. Over the years, he says, the role changes “because you grow as a person. And then you approach it with other choreographers and they give you their input. But because we got such good training in Cuba, you always go back to your roots, all the details that were given to you to make the role exciting.” Those details, he says, have more to do with character than technique. “They taught us well how to approach the playing with Kitri and how to have sensitive moments but also kind of flirting. He’s the man of the town, a player. He loves Kitri, but he’s a flirt.” Laughing, he adds, “So it’s a really natural role to play for a Latin man.”
Comic roles are more natural than those in the dramatic ballets, says Boada, who also danced Franz in Coppélia and D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (with Principal Dancer Pascal Molat, at National Ballet of Flanders). “For a prince you have to look and move a certain way; have certain mannerisms.” In contrast, he says, Basilio is “just fun. For Cubans it’s one of the best roles to do. You feel at home. You do it so much, you see it so much; in school that’s all they prefer you to do—the big classical ballets.” The town square and tavern scenes are “like a party,” he says. “Everything is about happiness. And at the end there’s a wedding and you have to dance in white tights and everybody freaks out because they’re tired after three hours. But it is amazing.”
Russian classicism, Spanish flair, a story drawn from commedia dell’arte, and a relentless sense of humor—that’s Don Quixote. And as Zahorian says, it’s the perfect way to end the season, after the intensity of Onegin and Romeo & Juliet. “It’s like every inch of [those ballets] is a different emotion.” In contrast, Don Quixote is lighthearted and fun, she says, filled with “explosive and powerful energy, pizzazzy fun.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola