American ‘Don Quixote’ Arrives on Catalan Shores

(This is an update of an article that appeared earlier today in the Huffington Post and includes a report on Friday night’s performance.)

When Ballet To The People heard that American Ballet Theatre was bringing Don Quixote to Spain for its first-ever appearance in Barcelona, her first instinct was to fire off a cranky Twitter message to the Spanish presenters. Shouldn’t the company with the world’s most sweeping and audacious ballet repertoire lay out a tapas spread of Balanchine, Tudor, Tharp, Ashton, Ratmansky, Millepied and Morris instead of this much-bashed-about, vaguely-Spanish-but-really-Russian banquet?

After two days spent watching the company expertly nip and tuck the production in the jewel box of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, however, she does see the point. Never have Santo Loquasto’s elegant designs looked so perfect as in this glittering, yet intimate, setting, and the opening night audience seemed to take feisty Cuban ballerina Xiomara Reyes to their hearts.  Art critic Robert Hughes wrote affectionately about Barcelona’s “mania for clubs and every sort of collective activity,” from its passion for Italian opera to fútbol, and the clubbiness of the sophisticated, well-heeled Liceu audience was on display Wednesday night with much cheek-kissing and conviviality. Though on the surface frivolous and light-hearted, this ballet may be entirely in step with the fierce Catalunyan nationalism that continues to fuel separatist rallies, cause of much heartburn in Madrid. The sight of tiny, fiery, flirty Reyes defying her overbearing father and running off with handsome Cory Stearns – who was born to play a prince, not a penniless barber, but with that physique and purity of line, we can forgive – was cause for delight. Notable were Reyes’ wedding scene fouettés, which she chose to embellish with overhead flourishes of her fan, perfectly in keeping with the saucy character of Kitri.

That said, the lead couple’s partnering was a little shakier than it should have been, as Stearns stepped in at the last minute for the injured Herman Cornejo. Past Cornejo-Reyes match-ups have been glorious, and his absence on the Barcelona tour is felt.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT’s performance offered many pleasurable compensations for the pas de deux wobbles and absurdly thin narrative. ABT’s current production fleshes out the title character of Don Quixote, and Victor Barbee invested the role with dignity, grace and pathos. Stella Abrera’s eloquent upper body carriage distinguished her dual interpretation of street dancer Mercedes and the ethereal Dryad Queen. She and Julio Bragado-Young as Sancho Panza, Craig Salstein as rich fop Gamache, and Roman Zhurbin as Kitri’s loutish father Lorenzo inhabited their characters with wit and humor. Sascha Radetsky’s dashing torero lacked the irony with which ABT stalwarts, notably David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes, usually spice up the role. The audience could not get enough of Sarah Lane in the piquant character of Amour, with her darting footwork and luminous air, or bare-chested Joseph Phillips in the daredevil gypsy solo. (The rest of the gitanos, in the only costuming stumble of the entire stylish production, were unaccountably attired like characters out of the 80’s rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap.) The corps was radiant in every guise – as dryads in the Dream scene, as toreros, seguidilla dancers, and wedding guests – and Yuriko Kajiya and Melanie Hamrick were models of grace and precision in their Flower Girl solos.

THURSDAY NIGHT offered the excitement of four debuts: Isabella Boylston as Kitri, James Whiteside as Basilio, Hee Seo as Mercedes/ Dryad Queen, and corps member Devon Teuscher as a Flower Girl. While Boylston does not manage a fan with as much brio as Reyes, her performance was assured and impeccably musical. She nailed every jump and turn effortlessly, her balances were superb, and her hops on pointe so secure that she could stretch out her descent luxuriously. She brings a quirky, radiant charm to the role, well-matched by her mischievous but attentive partner, James Whiteside, new ABT soloist, recently arrived from Boston Ballet. While he does not have great elevation, his lines are very clean, his turns solid, with nice attack in his allegro work and, like Boylston, elegant finishes.  Enthusiastic whistles and catcalls greeted the end of their Act III pas de deux. Hee Seo was entrancing as the Dryad Queen, her delicate classical lines unmarred, despite the slight hitch in her Italian fouettés. Inherently lovely, her demure elegance served her less well in the role of street dancer Mercedes, which calls for a bold, sassy arch of the upper back. Jared Matthews’ matador was suave and hilariously pompous, while Julio Bragado-Young’s hapless Gamache surely ranks among the finest comic turns in stage history.

FRIDAY NIGHT belonged to the Russians: ABT fielded the Dream Team of Polina Semionova and Veronika Part in the Dream Scene, with luscious port de bras raining down everywhere and sustained balances stretching to infinity. (Veronika finished her Italian fouettés in a high balance à la seconde.) Gemma Bond shimmered around the floor delightfully as Amour, sweeter than the sly, more brittle Nicole Graniero the previous night. Cory Stearns was a doting partner – if not a tempestuous lover like James Whiteside the previous night – and an elegant PRINCE barber. Alex Hammoudi on the other hand pulled out all the stops in his debut as Espada, showing off for Veronika’s smouldering Mercedes. In a clinch, they stared deep into each other’s eyes, then dramatically over their shoulders – with a glance around to make sure everyone else was enviously taking in their hot romance. As Flower Girls, Luciana Paris (in her debut) and Sarah Lane shone. Polina sizzled in the wedding pas de deux (fouettés all doubled up, with a wrist flick of the fan at the top of one) while Cory merely simmered, pulling off all his turns and jumps with stylish ease, and handling Polina expertly in all the lifts and promenades.

Of the three female leads I’ve seen this week, Xiomara’s Kitri is still the most satisfying, the most stirring character, even though she does not have the long lines and lush port de bras of Polina. Xiomara plays her as a charming but occasionally petulant and defiant girl who grows up a little by the Third Act; Isabella’s Kitri is lighter and sunnier; Polina’s more elegant and well-mannered, even when pushed around by her loutish father.

Don Quixote is a ballet that succeeds ultimately through richness of characterization, though many have ruined it in the past with florid embellishments and over-acting. Baryshnikov’s streamlined version for ABT in 1980 and Ratmansky’s recreation for the Dutch National Ballet – premiered in the U.S. earlier this year by Pacific Northwest Ballet and heralded by the New York Times as “a robust and rather more soulful take” – may be the twin gold standards.

None of the casts so far have fully mined the tragicomedy in this production, but as ABT fields three more casts this week in Barcelona – all very different in personality – we expect some tantalizing interpretations. Count on fireworks from Paloma Herrera, Natalia Osipova, and Ivan Vasiliev. Fans of the fleet-footed Daniil Simkin are no doubt flying in for his weekend performance.

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Photographer Renata Pavam, a native of Brazil, began studying ballet at the Centro Mineiro de Dancas Classicas with Ofelia Gonzalez from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. From August 1998 to August 2000 she studied with the Jeune Ballet de France in Paris. Pavam has received numerous honors and awards for international dance competitions including the Silver Medal at the USA International Ballet Competition – 1998; and the Silver Medal at the Concours International de Danse de Paris – November 1998. In 2001, she joined American Ballet Theatre as a member of the corps de ballet. Renata developed a passion for photography inspired by the backstage life at ABT.

For Renata’s portfolio, see her website and her gallery on ABT’s website.

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