Though its story can upon first viewing seem a little truncated, the Petipa/Gorsky full-length ballet Don Quixote, a bowdlerized telling of The Barber of Seville, has its humor and its charm. Both were mostly present and accounted for in Ballet San José’s rendering of the tight-weave version staged by Wes Chapman at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. We can see immediately that Chapman, who is billed as the company’s Artistic Advisor (with Ramond Rodriguez listed as Principal Ballet Master), has had a salutary effect on the ensemble work of the company since he assumed his responsibilities a little over a year ago. Additionally, the company now participates in a kind of time-share with New York’s American Ballet Theatre, an arrangement that seems limited to properties and use of the ABT curriculum at the company-allied ballet school. Idiosyncrasy is no stranger to this company, which two decades ago was called Cleveland-San Jose Ballet, and shared its season with its namesake city in Ohio.
With this modest-sized Silicon Valley-based company of fewer than 40 dancers, a decision was made to showcase the principal and soloist roles in a tableau at the top of the show. Since Kitri and Basilio’s entrances are traditionally grand moments in the ballet, the addition of the tableau diminished the impact of their entrances compared to other versions.
The mime in Act I, where we meet Kitri, Lorenzo’s daughter, is fully legible and sets out a clear story line for the ensuing love triangle, where Gamache, a dainty and foppish nobleman in a red wig and royal purple outerwear, who sashays more than he chassées, is Lorenzo’s choice to be his daughter’s intended. Alexandra Meijer, the best-known principal dancer at BSJ, takes to her coquettish role with great sparkle and enthusiasm. As Kitri she lets us know that she has other plans, and they reveal themselves when Basilio, danced by guest artist José Manuel Carreño, former ABT principal, excites us with a rousing entrance. He brings to the stage Cuban-honed polish, gallantry, and spotless technique. Reviewers have extended faint praise for his efforts, allowing that for a retiree, he’s quite the star technician, but this reviewer would venture to say that there are few North American principal dancers in their twenties or thirties in who could hope to match his technique, polish, gallantry, heroic partnering, and bravura. Meijer holds her own in Act I, throwing all that she’s got into establishing parity with Carreño, and their partnership is a felicitous match.
Principal dancer Jing Zhang gives us a bewitching Mercedes, in her layers of black glittering tulle trimmed in red. With flashing eyes and a mysterious smile, she lets us know that there is more than one maja at large in the town plaza.
Friends in this version are called Flower Girls 1 and 2 and are danced by Cindy Huang and Sarah Stein. They dance a bit stiffly in their first appearance, looking a little afraid that if they let go their smiles, their “Spanish back” might slip out of control as well. After having warmed up, and in their second appearance later in the show, those backs are more pliant, the mannequin look is gone, and they move like butter through their steps.
The progress this company has made in the last two years is registered by the work of the corps de ballet, especially the men who dance the Toreadors. There are a few late drops to the knee, but the double tours that precede them are clean and in unison.
Rudy Candia is a stellar Espada. His tempi throughout are strong and inspired, and capture the simmer beneath the surface that is essential in Spanish character dance. He and Zhang are well paired, with a strong connectivity, aided by her lovely extension and purchase over stage space.
Though nicely plotted out under Chapman’s clear and cogent direction, the clowning and dream sequences are less successful. Damir Emric as Don Quixote is missing the oddball, eccentric, and quirky quality that is key to making him interesting or important to the plot, and Ramon Moreno’s Sancho Panza therefore has nothing to play off of. There is a similar problem in the absence of comedic tension and timing between Maximo Califano’s Gamache and Anton Pankevitch’s Lorenzo.
Carreño has the lower body of a young dancer. Tricks and facility are all in order. It might not look easy to rise up and down from knee to standing through the many repetitions, but the important fact is that he is an excellent partner: generous, warm and encouraging to Meijer, who suffered an injury earlier in the week, we are told.
We meet the Gypsy Queen, danced spectacularly by Shannon Bynum, when Kitri and Basilio run off together and end up in a gypsy camp. It is in some ways the best female role in the ballet apart from that of Kitri, and Bynum takes full advantage of the opportunity to add a sizzling pop to her solo. The set design by Santo Loquasto was a pleasant surprise, and took us back a few months to feeling like it was Halloween.
Tiny Maria Jacobs-Yu as Cupid cleared our paletes between and throughout scenes, by making technique into artwork as she took bright steps toward, and a playful aim at her intended targets. A pleasure to watch! The Queen of the Dryads danced by Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun, looking stunning, tended to go a little behind the music, as if it were passing through a Vaganova time tunnel, though mastery of the steps was ever-present.
In the Act III Tavern scene, which is the comic and joyful denouement, we get to see more zesty dancing by Jing Zhang and Rudy Candia as the Mercedes and Espada characters, and a mini-tablao on a very narrow table danced by the saucy, come-hither Beth Ann Namey as the Barmaid, with Basilio and Kitri back in harness as she works her pluck and he his daring, in the prank they pull on Lorenzo: Basilio pretends suicide and Kitri marries his corpse, who while dead, raises his leg with a foot perfectly pointed in rigor mortis, but then comes to life just in time for the wedding libations.
For those who have seen the ballet, or any full length classical story ballet, where the solo variations proceed directly from the pas de deux and end with a grand pas de deux, this staging has some surprises: alterations to offer a honeymoon for the wedding couple between the solos and the Grand Pas de Deux, where Flower Girl 1 and 2 are shown again, dancing segments that have been cut and pasted from an earlier sequence.
For the rest of the full-house audience, this is of no consequence, and for the orthodoxy-bound, it is soon forgotten because Basilio is back with his amazing en déhors turns, which are as stellar as his en dédans.
From that point on, the mise en scene begins to suffer some casualties. The introduction of students, dancing poorly-formed saut de basques on their own and not integrated with corps dancers whose coryphées might have otherwise set the course, lowers the level of performance quality, and the boys and girls carrying garlands do not infuse cuteness so much as disruption of the line and tempi.
Though Ms. Meijer changes her pointe shoes between variations and the pas de deux, she seems to collapse inward on some of her lifts, and luckily in spite of the burden he carries for his own dancing, Mr. Carreño still has enough left over to stem the slippage that would otherwise result. In a company of this size, there are not many opportunities for principals dancing major roles to learn to pace themselves, and as that is acquired, it is easy to imagine Ms. Meijer, with her lovely feet, taking her laurels as fully evolved Kitri.
The overall spirit is vivacious, the ensemble committed, on task and fully present. As this company moves along its new trajectory, with Messrs. Chapman and Rodríguez at the helm, there is every reason to believe that its partnership with ABT will be celebrated, and its performances warmly received by San José audiences.