Since Don Quixote is usually regarded as the Bolshoi Ballet’s calling card, it’s bold of the Mariinsky Ballet to open its summer season at the Royal Opera House with its rival version, dating back to 1902. The Mariinsky’s aesthetic has always been less in-your-face than the Bolshoi’s brashness, so it takes a while for unfamiliar audiences to warm to its subtler charms.
When Alexander Gorsky revised Marius Petipa’s 1869 production of Don Quixote for the Bolshoi in Moscow, he reduced its five acts to three, pared away the already simple story and made its crowd scenes more naturalistic. Alexander Benois was unimpressed when saw its transfer to the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg in 1902: ‘The dramatic possibilities and the dancers themselves were reduced to a uniformly commonplace level . . . the crowds on the stage bustle and move about fitfully and aimlessly.’
Benois was pursuing his own agenda, along with Diaghilev. They would collaborate on more imaginative crowd scenes when Michel Fokine choreographed Petrushka some nine years later. Gorsky’s Don Quixote, however, has continued to remain a crowd-pleaser for its tale of high-spirited youngsters triumphing over greed and poverty. Penniless barber Basil gets the girl, Kitri, in spite of her inn-keeper father’s intention to marry her off to a rich idiot, Gamache.
Don Quixote himself plays only a small role in this Spanish rom-com. Although the 1902 painted scenery by Alexander Golovin and Konstantin Korovin is lavish, the touring version has no set for the prologue with the Don and his servant, Sancho Panza, and no horse or donkey for them to ride. But Don Q has an outsize lance to make him conspicuous and the production does its best to keep him centre stage.
The emphasis is on the dancing, animated by Korovin’s gorgeous costumes and plentiful props – capes, fans, tambourines, daggers and drinking vessels. Kitri (Vikoria Tereshkina on opening night) bursts in right at the start to get the merriment going, and is soon joined by her amorous suitor, Basil (Kimin Kim). Although their balletic fireworks are designed to impress the audience, the demi-soloists and corps perform for each other, honouring the choreography: they don’t ‘sell’ their steps in the way the Bolshoi dancers do.
This approach is evident in the vision scene in Act II, when the dazed Don dreams that he is in the Kingdom of the Naiads. After a spectacular transformation of gauzes from windmills to forest bower, he finds himself among a bevy of nymphs in pastel-hued tutus. They dedicate themselves to dancing, ignoring him; the exception is the delightfully cute Cupid (Tamara Gimadieva, still a corps member), who introduces the Don’s idealised women: Tereshkina as Dulcinea and Ekaterina Chebykina as the Queen of the Dryads.
Both are willowy, seemingly twice as tall as fleet-footed Cupid, but supremely secure in technically demanding solo variations, accomplished without bravura flourishes. Tershkina shows off, of course, when she dances with Kimin Kim in Acts I and III. Then they indulge in mischief – one-arm lifts, flying catches, no problem – without distorting the music’s tempi. (Mostly Minkus, with bits by Drigo and Anton Simon, merry if undistinguished.)
Tereshkina and Kim match well physically and temperamentally. She has a lovely high-flying arabesque line and a wide range of slow and fast turns, small and expansive movements. He hones his jetés like a barber’s blade and spins like a demon, as well as being charmingly funny.
Also impressive are the character dancers: Konstantin Zverev as a preening matador, Espada; Maria Lebedeva as a Gypsy fortune-teller with a formidable backbend; Olga Belik flaring her skirts as Mercedes; Xenia Dubrovina in a wrist-twirling ‘Oriental Dance’ on a carpet. Their big moments in the spotlight scarcely advance the plot, though Lebedeva’s Gypsy does warn Don Quixote that no good can come of his fantasies. When she foretells the future, you’d better believe her.
These roles are to provide variety in different genres of dancing. The additional choreography is attributed to Nina Anisimova, a character dancer with the Kirov, 1927-1958, and Fyodor Lophukov, who choreographed his own Don Quixote in 1923. The corps numbers are presumably by Gorsky, ‘after’ Petipa. No matter what Benois thought of their aimless bustling when he was disrespecting Gorsky, the ensemble dances are joyous, the crowd behaviour finger-clicking good. The production is great fun. If you miss Wednesday’s performance on 26 July, it comes back on 5 August, matinee and evening.