writers on dancing


The Bones and the Breath

"Balanchine's Don Quixote"
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet (with The National Ballet of Canada)
Opera House, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson

The steps and gestures are on stage again. Now all that Suzanne Farrell has to do is breathe life back into George Balanchine's "Don Quixote". There were moments tonight in her production when action, pose and even the dancing took on meaning and the giant body of this unfinished masterpiece stirred to move one's feelings. Prior to Act 1, at the beginning of the Prologue, we saw the odd figure of the old Don struggling with his visions. He was wild, yet meant well and deserved our pity. At the very end, in the Epilogue that follows Act 3 and after all that happened during the ballet's two and a half hour's running time, we mourned the Don's death as we realized, too, that it is his triumph. Momchil Mladenov mimed a plausible Don Q throughout, sometimes busily. What he had not was a Dulcinea worthy of the name. The Dulcinea role's dancing was born from a sense of daring. In repose, she used to be suffused with innate grace. Sandra Rodriguez, Farrell's first cast Dulcinea, must have been so scared by her opening night assignment that she hid any evidence of individuality. She danced neatly, not in the driven way Balanchine's off-center balancing and segmented linearity call for. Rodriguez declined to project.

Farrell, in staging the ballet, rehearsed it backwards, as Balanchine choreographed it, attending to Act 1 last. She rearranged and streamlined the sequence of the Don's first mishaps, yet the result doesn't resonate. The best dancing in "Don Quixote" always seemed to spring from a demonic or a sacred urge, and the ballet's highpoints of drama were revealed briefly, as if in lightning flashes. At heart, it was a work one could get lost in. However, there were also passages of dancing by ordinary characters, especially at the beginning. These mundane parts needed stirring up. Balanchine seemed unable to make movement that was morally neutral. Nevertheless, from the ballet's 1965 premiere and for the dozen years it was in New York City Ballet's repertory, he kept reworking those portions but to little effect. Tonight, the villagers who deliver the first real dancing, character dancing, seemed not just formulaic but cardboard flat. And shouldn't there be more people in the village square, enough to make a crowd? The jewel here was a classical solo (danced by Dulcinea in the guise of a Cruel Shepherdess, Marcela). Tonight it looked like a classroom exercise. A glint of what Act 1 could be came in the personage of the Duchess, played by Mariaelena Ruiz with all the deliberate ambiguity of one of Velasquez's royal portraits.

Act 2 is Balanchine's vision of a node of worldly power, the Duchess' court. It is a place cruel to the core, and neither etiquette, masks nor divertissements suffice to disguise this truth. Tonight's divertissement dancers seemed aware of the duplicity of their task. Erin Mahoney poured her tall self into her steps' tipped angularity as if to suggest she could never be betrayed by herself, her partner or any partner. The compact Shannon Parsley expressed pleasure in her finely faceted choreography as if it alone sufficed to mollify. Natalia Magicaballi's chiseled attack also diverted attention from the cold courtesy being shown the Don, as did Bonnie Pickard's thoughtful sensuality that stood in stark contrast with the innocence of her child attendant, Kiva McGhee. The courtiers, though, didn't seem evil while waiting. Again, there were too few people on stage. The Don's final humiliation in this act, the pie dough in the face, seemed just a bit underplayed and a spotlight in place of Dulcinea might have given the poor man more consolation than Rodriguez's portrayal.

Act 3 contains the work's dream ballet, blanc et noir. This dream, an incisive study in harmony and turbulence, began blandly tonight. There were trained dancers on stage, but few of them seemed stylists. The men, especially, worked hard but made little impact. Perhaps, now that opening night is over, the dream's calm portions will catch the light. Rodriguez, though, seemed to emerge a little from her anonymity, or was it a matter of becoming used to her? Mahoney simmered as the leading lady of the noir forces. After his dream, the Don tilts against windmills, which leads to his ultimately fatal injury and transport home in a cage.

Experiments require repetition. By the time this review is posted, "Balanchine's Don Quixote" will have been tried six more times. Even that may not suffice for those who believe in this ballet.

For the Record:

Music. Nicolas Nabokov's score has been edited by Ron J. Matson, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet's music director. Ormsby Wilkins, of The National Ballet of Canada, conducted on opening night. Nabokov's composition received adverse criticism for being thin and confusingly diverse during the production's years in New York City Ballet's repertory. Nabokov kept reworking the music, just as Balanchine did the choreography. After the last NYCB performance, Nabokov said to his wife "Now I know what to do". Presumably he intended to do more re-composing but died the following spring, on April 6, 1978. Tonight, the music sounded still diverse, but richer than I remembered it.

Production. Suzanne Farrell undertook the re-staging of "Don Quixote" essentially by herself. She had a little help from her former NYCB colleague Susan Pillare. Another former colleague, David Richardson, who used to rehearse the children for NYCB, is acknowledged in the printed program but not for a specific task. When stories about reviving "Don Quixote" first surfaced a few years ago, the Bolshoi Ballet was mentioned as a possible collaborator.

Properties & Effects. The original scenery by Esteban Frances and costumes by Karinska evoked the great painters of Spain. Those by Zack Brown and Holly Hynes for the current production are more practical for touring. Brad Fields designed the lighting. There are welcome visual effects: the moving clouds across the front curtain enliven the painted panorama; the starry sky above enlivened tonight's performance of the dream ballet. Other effects are unwelcome: Dulcinea's name written into the sky by those front curtain clouds; the glowing red lines of the windmill giant's eyes that seem space-age; the jarring orange vests for the two subsidiary male soloists in the dream ballet; the Don's awkwardly mechanical levitation prior to his death which was magical in the original production.

First:  Sonia Rodriquez, Momchil Mladenov and company in Balanchine's  "Don Quixote." Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Second:  Sonia Rodriquez, Momchil Mladenov in Balanchine's  "Don Quixote." Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Volume 3, No. 25
June 27, 2005

copyright ©2005 George Jackson



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last updated on June 27, 2005