San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
20 March 2015
San Francisco Ballet opened the second half of its repertory season with Don Quixote, the palate-cleansing refreshment of classical ballet and a mood-lifting break from a season filled with dramas and abstractions. The dancers and the nearly sold-out audience relished it on opening night, March 20, at the War Memorial Opera House.
SFB’s Don Q largely follows Petipa and Gorsky’s versions, with staging and additional choreography by artistic director Helgi Tomasson and choreographer in residence Yuri Possokhov in 2003. What makes SFB’s version special are the sets and costumes, created in 2012 by the late Martin Pakledinaz. He gave the company’s Nutcracker its magical sparkle, then waved the same wand over its Don Q; the costumes feature jewel colors and a tasteful dusting of crystals, and the sunny town square contrasts nicely with a gloomily minimalist gypsy camp, complete with a turning windmill. Not only did the makeover gave SFB a signature Don Q (previous sets and costumes were borrowed from Het Nationale Ballet), it adds to the ballet’s wide audience appeal – I’d guess that opening night was second only to The Nutcracker in the number of families in the Opera House.
Boasting a comedic love story as frothy as the lace on the traje de flamenco costumes, ballet’s Don Q is nothing more, and nothing less, than a showcase for firework technique and exultant showmanship (chivalry is the only remnant of Cervantes). So after certain technical benchmarks are met – her chignon-kicking grands jetés, his double sauts de basque – the enjoyment of a performance comes down to whether the lead couple suits one’s taste. SFB offers five casts over ten performances during this run.
Principal dancers Mathilde Froustey and Carlos Quenedit were exactly what the audience wanted on opening night. Froustey was a flirtatious, petulant and exceptionally self-assured Kitri; she seemed at home in the role, which she danced in 2012 at Paris Opera Ballet. (Froustey joined SFB for the 2013–2014 season on a one-year leave from POB, then extended her leave for a second year. The POB website still lists her as a sujet, or demi-soloist; no word yet on whether she will continue on in San Francisco or return to Paris.) The audience roared over her long balances and snappy pirouettes en diagonal, and she is a daring dancer who thinks nothing of hurtling blindly into the air and hoping her partner is waiting at the other end. I find, however, that beyond those grand gestures, her go-for-broke approach undermines overall precision and command.
Quenedit was a milder-mannered Basilio, gracious in his partnering and mirthful in spirit. It wasn’t the Cuban’s first turn in the role, but perhaps opening night added pressure – he seemed to heave a sigh (of relief?) as he prepared for his post-manège pirouettes in Act I. He and Froustey were well matched in temperament and physicality, and between leaps and bounds he supported her seamlessly through the grand lifts, leaps and fish-dives.
What story Don Q does offer was told with affection and fine comic timing by the supporting cast. Jim Sohm bumped into the walls as the quixotic Don, wandering the world with Pascal Molat’s Sancho by his side; they were charmingly vaudevillian and never hammy. Though nearly invisible under layers of lilac satin, rhinestones and feathers, Rubén Martín Cintas gave a star turn as Gamache, reveling in the role’s buffoonery.
As Kitri’s friends, soloist Dores André and corps member Norika Matsuyama set a wonderful tone throughout the ballet. Looking extremely well rehearsed (as did the entire company, to be fair), they exuded warmth and harmony, and danced with superb unison. In other pairings, Sarah Van Patten and Daniel Deivison-Oliveria wanted seductive bravado as Mercedes and Espada; Dana Genshaft and Hansuke Yamamoto’s gypsies could have used rougher edges as well.
The corps de ballet danced the opening seguidilla with infectious enthusiasm and impressive unison; the Act III fandango lacked polish. The corps women fared even less well as the dreamy Dryads; the choreography segregated them into four or five groups, each with its own steps (and none performed in unison), and the result was visual chaos.
As slight as a sparrow, soloist Koto Ishihara gave a Cupid variation that flitted above the ground. But the grandest of them all was Sofiane Sylve’s Queen of the Dryads. Dancing with her usual take-no-prisoners hauteur, Sylve was the mistress of her variation, from the finely modulated glissades at the start to the climactic Italian fouettés, which she simply intimidated into stopping at the perfect croisé line. Those were the fireworks I had hoped to see.