It’s good to be reminded once in a while that ballet is not only a hyper-refined, highly-evolved art, full of complexities and nuance, but also a superb entertainment, capable of producing very simple, uncomplicated pleasures. The ballet Don Quixote is precisely that: the story is flimsy, the character of the Don practically irrelevant, the music bombastic and only intermittently Spanish in character. But what fun it is. Don Q is a showcase of bravura dancing that calls as much attention to the ensemble – the toreros and the flower girls and the gypsies – as it does to the principals. It’s a company ballet, and boy does it show off what this company – the Bolshoi – does better than anyone.
The ballet originated in 1869 in Moscow, concocted by Marius Petipa, who revised and expanded it two years later for the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg. It was always meant to be a grand spectacle, a cornucopia of dances “in the Spanish manner.” This folkloric aspect was augmented many times over when the ballet was redone by Russian choreographer Aleksandr Gorsky at beginning of the last century. It was Gorsky who turned the corps into a living, breathing human mass rather than simply a frame for the principal characters. The first act unfolds like a never-ending fiesta, with one dance leading into the next, driven by Minkus’s lively, rhythmic numbers. The corps, wearing character shoes, accompanies the soloists almost like a musical counterpoint, kneeling and rising to the beat, shaking tambourines, clapping along.
The Bolshoi dancers pull it all off with enormous panache, despite the tight conditions at the David H. Koch theatre. (The Met would doubtless be a better fit.) At any given time, it seems that an entire Spanish town has indeed descended upon the stage. The men – toreros and villagers – are particularly striking: their dancing is precise and synchronized but seemingly tossed off, vigorous, free. They shake their hair and flash their eyes at the audience. A kind of natural extroversion rules onstage, but also in the pit – the Bolshoi orchestra makes the most of the spirited score, emphasizing its sprightly tempi and accents. But what impresses most is the company’s unaffected, full-blooded approach to ballet and character dance; the dancers are as natural as fish swimming in the sea.
Which is not to say that the production doesn’t have its excesses. The second act, with its Hollywood-esque faux-Spanish numbers – full of languorous backbends, castanet-clacking and flamenco poses – could use a trim. And the ballet blanc that follows Don Q’s unfortunate encounter with the windmill is really quite bland (particularly as led by Anna Nikulina, an un-scintillating and un-musical queen of the Dryads). But even in the ballet’s least prepossessing moments, individual dancers manage to draw one back in. Anna Antropova, as the sex-pot gypsy dancer in an otherwise tepid scene, was a knockout, fiery and sensual, with gleaming eyes and a keen sense of drama. She made this hackneyed set-piece into a story full of surprises, highs, and lows. At end of the ballet, a bit of filler between two entrances by the leads, Maria Vinogradova revealed finesse, charm, and deep musicality, as well as a pillowy jump. (Vinogradova caught the eye in various secondary roles in Swan Lake last week as well; clearly, she’s one to watch.)
As Espada, the thigh-slapping, cape-swishing torero-in-chief, Denis Rodkin was another standout, simultaneously robust and refined, with long lines and a flashy sense of humor. I would have sworn that Mikhail Lobukhin, the evening’s Basilio, was the embodiment of a Bolshoi type – extroverted, hyper-male, high-flying, a man of the people – if it weren’t for the fact that he has spent most of his career at the Mariinsky. Lobukhin, a kind of loveable lug, made eyes at the girls onstage and, just before launching into an impeccable (and very fast) sequence of turns à la seconde, at the audience. Normally this would appear uncouth; Lobukhin made the gesture seem utterly charming. Rodkin will take on the role of Spartacus in Grigorovich’s eponymous ballet on July 26; Lobukhin on July 25 and 27.
All of which brings us to our heroine, Kitri, danced by Kristina Kretova, a leading soloist in the company who began her career at the Kremlin Ballet Theater and joined the Bolshoi only a few years ago. Kretova gave a solid performance, not as fiery or soaring as some Kitris of recent memory, but self-possessed, unflappable and completely game. She’s the kind of dancer who lets you know right off the bat that you’re in good hands. All the tricks – the one-handed lifts, the swan dives, the leaps across the stage into her partner’s arms – went off without a hitch, just as one knew they would. But all this is almost beside the point; the real star of Don Quixote is the Bolshoi itself.