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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 10, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 06
PNB stages elaborate Don Quixote
Arts & Entertainment
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PNB stages elaborate Don Quixote

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

'They even sent the rubber chicken.'

That was the laugh line in the press room for last Friday's American premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's 2010 updating of the classic Russian ballet versions of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes' celebrated two-part novel, originally written in 1605 and 1615.

Ratmansky, one of the most celebrated young choreographers in the ballet world today, staged his version of the world-famous story for the Dutch National Ballet just two years ago. Peter Boal, PNB's artistic director, was on a search for a Don Quixote for Seattle and 'squeezed into the sold-out crowd' in Amsterdam in January, 2010, and immediately knew he had found his production. Negotiations began immediately for the Dutch National Ballet production to make its U.S. debut in Seattle in 2012. Last fall, the physical production was shipped through the Panama Canal in eight huge containers. Contents included 280 costumes, the towering sets, 50 wigs, countless props, one horse, one donkey - and the rubber chicken.

As choreographer, Ratmansky himself arrived in Seattle for several weeks of polishing touches after three 'stagers' from the Dutch company had taught the elaborate ballet to PNB's highly regarded dancers. Two Sundays ago, The New York Times ran an article naming Ratmansky and Seattle/Renton native Mark Morris as the two most exciting choreographers working in ballet today - talk about 'torn from the headlines.'

Without a doubt, the new Don Quixote is the most elaborate production PNB has ever staged. To help pay for the expensive import, PNB founded a 'Don Quixote Fan Club' with donations - all from individuals - ranging from $1,000 (many) to $100,000 (two). Presumably, future PNB revivals of the production will help defray the incredible costs, but the current Don Quixote, running through Sunday, could prove to be 'a once in a lifetime' experience for Seattle ballet fans.

Don Quixote is a strange ballet. Although the title character and his loyal sidekick, Sancho Panza, are on stage for much of the production, both are non-dancing roles. Early ballet adaptations dating to 1740 attempted to translate the various adventures of Quixote and Sancho directly for the ballet stage. None captured the essence of the novels. By 1801, the ballet had shifted focus from the main characters of the novel to two minor characters in a throwaway sequence in the books. Since 1869, when Marius Petipa staged the tale for Russia's Bolshoi Ballet (with an original score by Ludwig Minkus), Don Quixote has become the story of Kitri and Basilio, two young lovers in a small village. The two take the central roles in a comic star-crossed romance with Kitri pursued by the foppish aristocrat, Gamache (so foppish in this production that the bows on his shoes are larger than any Shirley Temple ever wore in her Hollywood heyday).

Revisions of the Russian masterwork continued but that staging remains the basis for all of today's productions. And, as is traditional in the ballet world, some of the major dances have been passed down directly from dancers of each era who danced the duets or small ensemble works. Today, original sequences by Petipa and, later, Alexander Gorsky are staged in recognizable form. The score is also a combination of later revisions. This production uses works from seven composers, all in 'the Russian style.'

For most of the audience, little of ballet history matters when ticket holders settle into McCaw Hall for a night at the ballet - and what a night it is. On opening night last Friday, Carla Korbes danced Kitri with polish and style, and Karel Cruz was a simply spectacular Basilio. Jonathan Porretta was a riot as Gamache - he, properly, stole every scene in which he appeared. Hollywood and television's Tom Skerritt took the title role, and Seattle's prime character actor Allen Galli brought Sancho Panza wonderfully to life. Skerritt, a Seattle area resident for many years, brings a star quality to the ballet (and a lot of press coverage - an invaluable bonus for such a costly production). Even with massive publicity, the opening night was not a total sell-out, but that could change for this weekend's final performances. Word of mouth has been incredible and it certainly is a terrific choice for devoted ballet fans and first-time ballet visitors. Comedy reigns supreme, with brilliant dances once the dancing begins.

The production, basically, lives up to its reputation. The sets are towering. A fantasy sequence from Quixote's dream is wondrously bizarre - dancing cactus plants, a sprightly Cupid and his followers, more dryads than you can count. In the scenes in a Barcelona square, toreros twirl pink and orange capes with style and flair. A few costumes miss the mark - a major male dancer has a black and white outfit that has to be one of the most unflattering costumes ever pawned off on a PNB male. Kitri, in the only red dress on the whole stage (the only red dress in Barcelona, perhaps), looks terrific, but falls into the 'spitfire' stereotype of Spanish literature. But, enough quibbles.

Running nearly three hours, Don Quixote is first-rate in every department. The stage is constantly full of color, spectacle, and, much of the time, first-rate choreography with world-class dancing. PNB's spring season continues with New Works, a program of three world and Seattle premieres, March 16-24. Classical ballet returns for the final two programs in April and June.

Complete information on all PNB performances - including this weekend's final Don Quixote stagings - is available at (206) 441-2424 or at www.pnb.org.

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