This reworking of Marius Petipa’s much-loved Don Quixote, helmed by Aaron S. Watkin of Dresden’s Semperoper Ballet, both reinstates and revises crucial components of the Cervantes picaresque it’s based on. Among the restorations is the layered characterisation of the eponymous hero, a civilian in reality (Alonso Quixano) and knight in his fantasies (Don Quixote). This time around, however, Alonso is not an aging hidalgo but a weary welder, and the action plays out under 1950s Franco rule, not the Spanish Golden Age. Another notable departure is the reimagining of Don Q’s squire as a woman: by day she’s Juanita Sanchez, Alonso’s eager apprentice, but by night she joins him on his adventures as Sancha Panza, a trusty companion who eventually becomes his lover.
Together the pair battle thieves, gypsies and windmills between visits from Doña Dulcinea, Don Q’s elusive imaginary mistress. In the background, a forbidden romance plays out between Miguel, a worker in the welding factory, and Aldonza, the daughter of the factory owner. Unlike in Petipa’s ballet, this latter storyline takes a backseat to Don Q’s adventures – a welcome development that gifts us a more complex protagonist than the bumbling knight-errant traditionally served up. The music – a blend of Ludwig Minkus’s original score and work from twentieth-century Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, expertly arranged here by Mikhail Agrest of the Mariinsky Theatre – is a likewise textured offering.
In reconfiguring the ballet’s setting around Franco’s fascist regime – a tragic era of state-sponsored oppression and violence – Watkin cannily elevates Alonso’s escapist fantasies from fanciful gambols to much-needed respites. Gone are the usual merry depictions of provincial life in La Mancha, and in their place are scenes of a decidedly more solemn nature: militant officials shaking down unwitting citizens on the streets, anti-unionists raiding factories and demanding papers.
That’s not to say the production is devoid of colour. Patrick Kinmonth – internationally known designer, director and more – has devised a rich set and costume design that latches on to the warmth of Alonso’s fictions and contrasts it sharply with the austerity of his everyday life. From a steely welding factory of chilly greys and blacks emerge illusions of flickering campfires and dazzling bullrings, fiery villains and sunny flocks of admiring women. The candy-coloured menagerie of toreadors, with their teal trousers and fuchsia capes, is a definite visual highlight, as is the rainbow of tutus of the finale, which cleverly recall the mid-century summer dresses of an earlier scene in their white piping and swinging skirts. And then there’s Dulcinea’s ghostly rose and charcoal number, with its flowing sleeves and funereal lace veil – a sultry mirage amid the harsh backdrop of Francoist Spain.
At three hours, the production feels overlong, particularly the second half, much of which is given over to lengthy bouts of miming and showy stop/starts, leaving the impression that both the dance and libretto could stand to be more efficient in their storytelling. On the plus side, the choreography is lively and imaginative, particularly in big-group routines like the toreadors’ dance of the first act, which sees a dozen caped bullfighters strut, leap and spin in a circus of bold, flashy lines, a gaggle of admirers cheering them on from the sidelines. The dazzling scene has all the trappings of a chorus line, while the famous windmill scene, featuring guest choreography from Gamal Gouda, possesses a distinct street flavour, with swishy skirts, grounded stomping and a potent brawl between Don Q and the head gypsy. There’s a lot to love in the smaller-scale scenes too, particularly Dulcinea’s apparitions, with their ethereal bourrés and romantic port de bras – demure Bournonville moves that contrast sharply with Aldonza’s perky classical technique.
Sturdy performances from the leads rounded out what’s on balance a promising new production for the company. Christian Bauch moved seamlessly between layman and caballero in the titular role, revealing an impressive versatility of character, while Sangeun Lee delivered an evocative, deliciously eerie Dulcinea. Svetlana Gileva was precise and polished in her turn as Aldonza, a lovely complement to Istaván Simon’s swaggering Miguel, though it was Melissa Hamilton’s Sancha/Juanita who emerged as the most compelling female character, her sprightly bounces evolving into glamorous long-legged leaps as her romance with Alonso/Don Q blossomed. Some extra rehearsals among the corps would not go amiss – there were a few fumbles, particularly in terms of timing – but the talent is there. With some prudent editing of the second act, the pacing and balance of tension could be too.