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A Spunky Don Q from the Cubans

Don Quixote
National Ballet of Cuba
City Center
New York, NY
October 15, 2003

by  Eric Taub
copyright ©2003 by Eric Taub

Remembering the grand productions the National Ballet of Cuba once brought to the Metropolitan Opera House in decades past, and even knowing that Cuba's economy has fallen on hard times since then, it's still a bit of a shock seeing the meager production of Don Quixote which the Cubans brought to City Center on their most recent visit, which concluded on the 19th. The skimpy sets and cartoonish drops looked beneath the standard of a second-string regional company here, and the costumes, with their overly bright colors and fussy, overwrought details made me wonder whether a big-budget Cuban production would be much of an improvement. It also didn't help that the Alicia Alonso has reworked the ballet's story: here, in a prologue, the oppressed Spanish masses of the early 19th Century beg for aid from the statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, which come to life, presumably to help free Spain from the invading French. Here, Gamache, the bumbling suitor of Kitri, is Camacho, a French aristocrat whose amatory whims are enforced by a pair of equally bumbling French soldiers. And, while the Don's new provenance as a prayer answered doesn't prevent him from being the recipient of the occasional "don't mind him, he's crazy" gesture from the happy-yet-oppressed townfolk, here he is much more central to the ballet's story—for example, Kitri and Basil (not Basilio, here) don't sneak off in the general pandemonium at the end of Act I, but, rather, the Don himself fights off Camacho and his soldiers, so that the would-be lovers can make a peaceful exit on a peasant-drawn wagon.

But enough of Money, Literature and Art; what about the dancing? The dancing is quite fine, thank you. Really fine, in fact. The Cuban women are strong, generous, aggressive, and, in Don Quixote, delightfully spunky. The men are the same, except more dashing than spunky. Sunday afternoon's Kitri was Bárbara Garcia, who could perhaps be the personification of the short, fiery, Latin spitfire. What else could you call a girl who, two seconds after her very first entrance, uncorks a quadruple pirouette, and soon follows it up with yet another? As with the other Cuban Kitris—Viengsay Valdés and Laura Hormigón—Garcia is a prodigious turner, balancer and leaper. She won me over completely in the first act, with her wild, fearless step-up triple pirouettes, off-kilter in a Suzanne Farrellish way. In the third-act wedding pas de deux, her balances weren't quite as jaw-dropping as Valdés' (the opening-night Kitri), but I don't think anyone on the face of the earth could be, as Valdés performed feats I've never seen before, ever (more on that later). Garcia's Basil was Romel Frómeta—young and rough around the edges, but possessed of a spectacular high leap, gorgeous barrel turns, and, if not quite the natural-turner that Joel Carreño proved to be opening night, still managed to elicit plenty of gasps and cheers from the audience.

As Espada, the lead bullfighter, the tall Jaime Diaz showed that too much of a good thing can indeed be wonderful—in this case, testosterone. His Mercedes, Hayna Gutiérrez, was strong and more than technically able, but, perhaps, not as inspiring as the other leads. Anette Delgado showed off high extensions and solid turns as the Queen of the Dryads, but it was the girl who danced Love—a last-minute substitution, as she clearly wasn't the scheduled Idania la Villa, who'd done the role on opening night—won my own heart over, as she danced the solo we usually see Kitri do here, with enormous sissonnes en avant followed by equally enormous pique arabesques. She embodied for me what I've come to think of as the Cuban style, as she held back nothing, dancing over her head, perhaps, but winning her gambles. So did we, for that matter. I found much the same winning attack in Kitri's twelve lavender-tutued bridesmaids, who also, it seemed, held back nothing.

In some ways, however, the dancing was the icing on the cake of the acting. If this production's story had some rocky patches, every scene was filled with carefully devised bits of business and acting which conveyed that story with great clarity, if not always beauty. For instance, in the first act we see Kitri's father, Lorenzo, scold a gypsy girl who he's caught stealing an apple; Kitri tells him to let her go, and gives the girl her scarf. Of course, this kind gesture is what saves Kitri's and Basil's lives in the next act, where the gypsy girl remembers Kitri's kindness, returns the scarf, and welcomes the lovers to the gypsy camp, which had, until then, been rather hostile. If the various characters are drawn with a very broad brush indeed (especially Rolando Sarabia Martinez' Camacho, a perfect stage fop if ever there was one), at least someone was wielding that brush. However, I did find the decision to have two Don Quixotes in the dream scene (the Dancing Don and the Dreaming Don—the former emerging from the latter like a butterfly from a chrysalis) to be a bit too reminiscent of a great line from a favorite movie (to paraphrase: "This audition is for singing Don Quixotes—dancing Don Quixotes are next door!"). In any case, there was no dearth of heartfelt mime and acting, and, for that, I am always grateful.

Having mentioned some of Valdés' technical astonishments, I'd be remiss not to give a bit more detail: two marvelous balances in attitude, with a slow retiré through passé to a developpé to the front, all while still on pointe, and over the ever-increasing cheers of the audience; a balance in retiré (after a promenade in attitude) where she let go of Joel Carreño's hand, then did a slow developpé to arabesque, again, to much commotion from the audience. What astonished me the most, though, was the moment when she advanced towards Carreño along a diagonal, stepped up into a piqué arabesque, and stayed. And stayed and stayed. She spent not an instant "finding" her balance—it was there when her toe touched the floor. As for the fouettés, well, each Kitri was impressive in her own way. Valdés started with a quadruple pirouette, then interspersed a few doubles before settling down to a rock-solid series of singles (no, I wasn't counting). Hormigón did single-single-double a few times, before finishing with one-and-one-eighth fouettés—advancing her spot around the stage by an eight for each of eight turns (I'd only seen one-and-a-quarter turns before this—and very rarely). Garcia was content to "only" do single-single-double all the way through, with no breaks.

I hope we see more of the Cubans, and soon. I miss them already.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 4
October 20, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Eric Taub



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last updated on Octobe r20, 2003