Despite my ho-hum attitude toward Don Quixote in general, largely due to the circusy Minkus music, I decided that it might be worth seeing the Ballet San Jose’s production mounted by Wes Chapman, former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and artistic director of the Alabama Ballet. When I heard that Amy Marie Briones, who had impressed me so much at the SJB Gala, was to dance Kitri, I couldn’t resist. Unfortunately the company did not announce guest artist José Manuel Carreño until two weeks before the run, by which time my schedule was already filled and I couldn’t make his performances.
As I’m sitting up close in the fifth row, I remind myself to keep everything in perspective. I would be remiss in trying to compare this mid-sized regional company with larger companies for the reasons of dancers and budget. On the other hand, for many years I preferred Oakland Ballet to San Francisco Ballet because the dancers didn’t hold back while trying to be perfect; they just gave their all, perfect fifth positions be damned. Ultimately, ballet shouldn’t be judged solely on technical proficiency. As the dance world grows more and more focused on athleticism and tricks, I look harder to find the artistry and unconditional joy in the movement.
The curtain rises on the prologue with Don Quixote (Maximo Califano) and Sancho Panza (Anton Pankevitch) about to set off on the hidalgo’s quest. As if in a dream they encounter all the main characters of the story for brief introductions – Kitri (Amy Marie Briones), Basilio (Jeremy Kovitch), Gamache (Wes Chapman), Lorenzo (Anton Pankevitch) and Cupid (Maria Jacobs-Yu). Then the first act opens on a bustling village plaza with everyone making their roles come alive. If a bit lacking in precision of execution and maintenance of tidy lines, they more than make up for it with genuine enthusiasm. When Briones makes her entrance as Kitri, the whole audience sits up expectantly. Her vibrant presence commands your attention and after a few steps it is clear that she is Kitri, not a dancer playing the role, but a complete embodiment of it. She flirts, charms, pouts and protests without missing a beat, and it is abundantly clear why Basilio, Don Quixote and Gamache are in love with her. And, just to top it off, she possesses an extremely prodigious technique that is always in service to creating the role and not shown off for its own sake. She has precise pirouettes, jumps of great élan, balances with ease and does it all with exceptional musicality. I only wish she had a partner who could match her on every level. Kovitch does a solid job, but could be more passionate and humourous.
Califano is a terrific Don Quixote, constantly in his own reverie until interrupted by reality, then totally gung-ho to be off in pursuit of his dream. He somehow manages to retain some vestige of dignity even in the most ridiculous situations. I admire Chapman’s Gamache played with knowing nuance, instead of the often seen over-the-top foppish and fussy buffoon. All the subtlety, however, is probably lost to half the audience as they are sitting too far away to catch the intelligent shadings. By magnifying his gestures and facial expressions without changing their meaning, he could easily convey his wonderful caricature. Jacobs-Yu, in the role of Cupid, is utterly delightful. Light and airy, darting and mischievous, her Puckish imp is the perfect contrast to a stage full of dryads.
Visually, despite the slightly limp tutus and general worn-out look of the Santo Loquasto costumes, courtesy of American Ballet Theater, the sets by Hans Christian Molbech for the first and third acts work well. Loquasto’s set for the gypsy camp in the second act is fine, but the one for the dream sequence seems to belong to another ballet entirely.
The good news is that I had a very pleasant afternoon, mostly the result of the dancers actually having a splendid time on stage. The family matinee attended by dozens and dozens of children gives me hope that there will be a future audience for ballet. Possibly Don Quixote is an even better introduction to ballet than Nutcracker, as I am impressed also by their rapt attention and generally good behavior throughout the performance.