Exuberance and fine dancing in The Tokyo Ballet’s Don Quixote

December 24, 2020

David Mead

As a rule, the story in the 19th-century Russian ballet classics is really little more than a hook on which hang the dancing; and in Don Quixote, that story is thinner than in most. Not that it matters because what’s really important here is spectacle, and there’s plenty of that in this extremely high tempo Tokyo Ballet production by Vladimir Vasiliev, principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet for twenty years, and later General and Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Theatre.

What plot there is follows the fun that ensues as the courtship of the local barber Basilio and Kitri, the innkeeper’s daughter he’s in love with, and that’s going on against her father’s wishes, runs up against the dreamy wandering of the adventure-seeker Don Quixote and his servant Sancho Panza.

Akira Akiyama (Kitri) and Yasuomi Akimoto (Basilo)with artists of The Tokyo Ballet in Don QuixotePhoto Kiyonori Hasegawa
Akira Akiyama (Kitri) and Yasuomi Akimoto (Basilio)
with artists of The Tokyo Ballet in Don Quixote
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

All that continually pauses, often for a long time, however. Once we are past the Prologue and in the town square of Act I, the narrative constantly gives way to fabulous, often virtuoso dancing, from the unbridled exuberance of the townsfolk, the cheerful Seguidilla and the stylish dance of the Toreadors, through the darker energy of the gypsy men, to the beautiful classicism of the Dryads and the famously bravura grand pas de deux. It may be a bit over the top but this very much a ‘happy ballet’ that’s energised and that rattles along at pace, that’s fun and guaranteed to lift the spirits.

The prologue is always difficult and it is by far this production’s weakest moment. The ballet’s Russian roots are evident in the heavy acting of the sort that has long been superseded in much of the world by a more naturalistic approach. It also doesn’t need Cupid wafting around fairly aimlessly, presumably an attempt to emphasise the love aspect and add to the dreamy feel.

But it only takes a few minutes of Act I to bring smiles and to fall in love with what is a vibrant production brim full of fine dancing. The setting as just as one might imagine, the town dominated by a castle up on the hill, the townsfolk colourful in their reds and oranges.

Tokyo Ballet in Ivan Vasiliev's production of Don QuixotePhoto Kiyonori Hasegawa
The Tokyo Ballet in Ivan Vasiliev’s production of Don Quixote
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

The Tokyo Ballet sometimes calls on international guest artists to take lead roles, but here we have an all-Japanese cast with Yasuomi Akimoto and Akira Akiyama in the lead roles. They make a fine couple.

Akiyama gives a very natural Kitri. Her sunny disposition and smile would win anyone over. Her lover may strum his guitar but it is most definitely she who is playing him, stringing him along as she teases him with a mischievous glint in her eye. She reels off all the steps with ease. She has this wonderful knack of making beautiful shapes with her upper body, making full use of a pliant and wonderfully expressive back.

Akimoto is all easy-going boyish, charm and a very courteous partner. He may not be the tallest dancer but he’s incredibly strong and makes the showstopping one-arm lifts look easy. He can do humour too, pitching the pretend killing himself with his razor moment with comic perfection.

Together they made the big closing pas de deux truly exciting, both showing bags of flair, musicality and impeccable technique. ‘Could it get any more thrilling?’, you kept wondering. Yes, it could! The highlight? Surely Akiyama’s fouettés, not only done at warp speed but near perfectly placed too.

The Tokyo Ballet in Don QuixotePhoto Kiyonori Hasegawa
The Tokyo Ballet in Don Quixote
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

Wandering through all this, Tomoya Nakashima as Don Quixote. Never a figure of fun, he’s portrayed as a kindly, just an old man lost in his dreams, writings and fantasies. Kazunari Kaida has fun as the nicely rotund Sancho Panza, who gets tossed scarily high in the blanket.

If there’s a role that calls for overacting, it’s surely Gamache. Junya Okazaki cut it just about right, as foppish as can be in his exuberant gold and red finery. He’s also the centre of one of the funniest slapstick moments when his crotch is on the receiving end of the Don’s lance. It brought tears to the eyes in more ways than one.

As the romantic foils to Kitri and Basilio, Kanako Nihei as street-dancer Mercedes and Arata Miyagawa as Espada the more formal toreador cut fine figures. Nihei manages some great height in his jumps.

In the vision scene, Yurika Mikumo is a coolly regal Queen of the Dryads. Elsewhere, I was especially taken by the sunny disposition and sheer joy of dancing exuded by Kurumi Kato as one of Kitri’s friends.

The soloists are backed up by a buzzing corps that throw themselves absolutely into every step; and Don Quixote is a ballet that demands that, perhaps like no other. Even the young children of the Tokyo Ballet School get it just right. The moment the boys appear in huge chef’s hats when the Don demands food is a hoot.

As indeed is this whole Tokyo Ballet production; a Don Quixote that skips along happily and leaves a smile on the face.

The Tokyo Ballet in Don Quixote – Grand pas de deux starts at 6-50[clear]