A revisioned and meaty Don Quixote from the Semperoper Ballet

Semeperoper Dresden
November 5, 2016

Maggie Foyer

Audiences love Don Quixote for the feast of fine dancing it offers and gloss over the weak story line and hammy acting. But at Dresden Semperoper Ballet, director Aaron S. Watkins and designer and visionary, Patrick Kinmonth, have taken the ballet in hand. The fine dancing is still there, in fact it’s some of the best around, but a revisioned plot now offers five meaty principal roles, generous in both dance and characterisation.

The other major component is Mikhail Agrest’s conducting and musical arrangements. While Ludwig Minkus’s music raises the temperature to fever pitch, the addition of music from Manuel de Falla brings the mystery and magic of Spain allowing artistic depth seldom reached in this ballet.

The production links a world of grandiose dreams with everyday reality in Spain of the 1950s. Don Quixote, alias Alonso Quixano, is a welder by day and a dreamer by night. Juanita Sanchez, alias Sancha Panza his loyal apprentice, joins her master in the evenings to avidly read the Tales of Cervantes. Aldonza, daughter of the factory owner, is in love with Miguel Basilio also a welder and an ambitious young toreador. The ethereal Dulcinea is ever present, representing unattainable dreams and distracting the Don from the reality of the love Juanita has for him.

Svetlana Gileva (Aldonza Lorenzo) and István Simon (Miguel Basilio) in Don QuixotePhoto Ian Whalen
Svetlana Gileva (Aldonza Lorenzo) and István Simon (Miguel Basilio) in Don Quixote
Photo Ian Whalen

But Don Quixote loves Aldonza and Act One follows his dream as he becomes the toreador who kills the bull, played by Miguel transformed into a minotaur. This gives the perfect excuse to include most of Petipa’s dance scenes plus a load of fantastic bull: a corps of minotaurs, each slain by a toreador and mourned by a corps of clone Aldonzas and even an ensemble of little Dulcineas. The plot is too convoluted to detail but it works in a glorious celebration of love, life, and death.

István Simon as Miguel gave a five-star performance. Watkins, who has rebooted the choreography, pushes him quite literally to great heights in a thrilling virtuoso display. The dozen toreadors, led by Craig Davidson and Houston Thomas, proved a male corps of world-class standards in a fiery technical exhibition while Kinmouth complements their talents with costumes of brilliant shiny pastels.

Svetlana Gileva, as Aldonza, proves her mettle in her pas de deux with Miguel plus twelve toreadors in a rollercoaster of thrilling throws and catches. Twenty-four Dulcineas close the dream, dancing in the style of Bournonville, showing finely honed footwork and easy ballon. But back to reality, a furious father and chaos on the factory floor forces the lovers to elope.

Christian Bauch as Alonso Quixano/Don QuixotePhoto Ian Whalen
Christian Bauch as Alonso Quixano/Don Quixote
Photo Ian Whalen

The second act opens with Don Quixote and Juanita out on the road having also lost their jobs. The common folk prove not to be the salt of the earth, as the pair are first robbed by a shepherd then kidnapped by a truly fearsome gang of gypsies. Led by Courtney Richardson and Fabien Voranger, the gypsies dance up a storm with flamenco flair choreographed by Gamal Gouda. Finally, all is resolved in a denouement to match Shakespeare’s best, the workshop is bought by Don Quixote’s surprise inheritance, the lovers forgiven and, yes, there is a grand pas plus all the trimmings to celebrate their wedding.

At the heart of this ballet is the central performance from Christian Bauch as the Don. A fine dancer and an artist of great depth, he absorbs the character of this honourable but foolish man led astray by dreams. Whether centre stage or observing from the side, Bauch finds the many layers in Cervantes’ hero. His dream toreador is full of bravado, with just a hint of irony while his disappointment in love in heartbreaking to watch but his comradely attitude to Juanita (Melissa Hamilton) changes only in the final moments when stirrings of reciprocal love arise.

István Simon as Miguel Basilio and ensemble in Don QuixotePhoto Ian Whalen
István Simon as Miguel Basilio and ensemble in Don Quixote
Photo Ian Whalen

Hamilton has a dream role which she grabs with both hands to create a warm intelligent woman to boost her flawless technique. As a gamine figure she is peripheral in Quixano’s dream, but Act Two compensates as she morphs from stalwart companion, to a sensual display in the gypsy dance, a practical woman on their return and she finally gets to dance Kitri’s solo at the lover’s wedding. In a bright yellow tutu and arriving from a very different journey, she gives this hackneyed solo, freshness and vitality. The grand pas de deux, danced with bravura skill by Simon and Gileva, also seems less pompous and Gileva followed with a feisty interpretation of Kitri’s Act One solo, as part of the wedding celebration. Sangeun Lee, as Dulcinea, also has a major role. Her presence is potent, guiding the scene transformations like a Lilac Fairy and constantly hovering on the periphery. It was not an easy character to interpret but Lee managed to give strength to this intangible figure.

The final moment is a true coup de theatre. The Don stands central and circling round are Dulcinea and, on the opposite side, Juanita in a simple yellow frock and a heart full of love. In the final seconds he turns from Dulcinea and reaches out a hand to Juanita who walks forward to take it. The lights fade before they make contact leaving an open verdict and a vivid memory of a great performance.