The Royal Ballet: Don Quixote

Royal Opera House, London
October 7, 2023

You can’t deny it’s a crowd-pleaser, and a welcome one. These days there seems to be less and less of them around. Sunny and warm, full of dancing bullfighters, gypsies and other locals, Don Quixote is real feelgood ballet; one of those where you can just sit back and enjoy the dancing that comes pretty much non-stop. That’s probably just as well as the story of lovers Kitri and Basilio, loosely hung alongside that of the Don’s quest for his Dulcinella, is about a thin as they come.

On this afternoon, it did feel a bit lukewarm, initially at least. Don Quixote is a ballet that calls for fireworks almost from the off but there was a spark missing. That may be because I like my ‘Don Qs’ to be full-throttle and my Kitris to be sparky and vivacious from the get-go.

That was not the case here. In Act One, while Anna Rose O’Sullivan had the occasional glint in her eye, and showed an occasional glimpse of spirit, more often than not there seem a tentativeness and uncertainty. Whether that was debut nerves or a deliberate characterisation, I’m not entirely sure. But the latter is more than possible. After all, her father would much rather she marry Gamache, or at least his money, rather than Basilio, who she is actually in love with. Having said that, there were a couple of uncertain moments in the partnering too.

Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Steven McRae and ensemble in Don Quixote
Photo ROH/Foteini Christofilopoulou

The good-looking Stephen McRae did bubble from the off as the flirtatious and streetwise Basilio, though. His is quite a mischievous portrayal, full of roguish, cheeky swagger. And the bravura was there in spades.

Things picked up noticeably in Act Two, where the opening more lyrical, gentle, unshowy pas de deux was absolute perfection. With Kitri away from her father, the chemistry between her and Basilio perked up too. The playful moments were a real delight, in particular. By the time the big Act Three pas de deux arrived, both were pretty much on fire, shining brightly in their respective variations, although McRae just about took the honours for his turns and wonderfully explosive manèges. His faking of Basilio’s death was also quite hilarious.

Even so, when it came to comedy there was only one winner: James Hay as the preening fop, Gamache, who Kitri’s father would rather she marry. His characterisation is genius. He oozed vanity and self-importance without ever overdoing it, and without ever seeming put out at rejection.

Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Steven McRae in Don Quixote
Photo ROH/Foteini Christofilopoulou

Stylish, absolutely self-assured and slightly aloof, Leo Dixon was a very aristocratic Espada. As Mercedes, Yuhui Choe was full of control as she sizzled gently. It was a great match. Kitri’s Friends, Sophie Allnatt and Sae Maeda delighted too.

In Act Two, Mariko Sasaki was a delight as the Queen of the Dryads, strong but with beautifully fluid ports de bras. Pick of the act’s soloists was Meaghan Grace Hinkis as Amour, however. She is sprightly, precise and musical and overall a joy to watch.

And we must not forget the Don. After all, it is his ballet. While the role involves little dancing, it’s important for the way it acts as a counterpoint to the fizz and crackle elsewhere. Plus, of course, as he wanders through the action, he is the thread on which everything else hangs. Christopher Saunders brought sincerity and conviction to the old man, and was full of the courtly manners you would expect.

A feature of both Acosta’s London and Birmingham productions is how those playing the other townsfolk are encouraged to truly be their characters with the freedom to add personal touches to roles. It shows. And it is important. It makes people believable, or at least as much as ballet folk can be.

And invested they were. But even so, one group stood out, taking the eye time and time again. The quartet of urchins, Daichi Ikarashi, Liam Boswell and Francisco Serrano, led by Taisuke Nakao were terrific. Nakao’s pirouettes beat anyone else’s in the whole three hours.

Tim Hatley’s designs work well, the most inspired being the Don’s straw horse, with the ever-more looming windmills and the flowery surroundings of the Garden of the Dryads, a close second.