Thursday, May 10, 2007

Notes on Don Q Tuesday, May 2

(Don Q’s the deluded romantic who gave his name to a venerable condition: quixotic—fine poetic word for dreamy, unrealistic, impulsive (from cuixot, Catalan for thigh or horse’s ass, which Don Q is, along with sweet and valiant.))

A delicious Don Quixote.

But four years out I’m still trying to determine if it’s objectively possible to be anticlimactic in the first scene of an evening-length ballet production when nothing precedes it. If so, Don Q hit pay dirt in 2003 when a tall skinny guy with an unwieldy body sat reading dreamily upstage while turning some pages of a book. That was it. We could hear the narrative machinery grinding: “WE HAVE TO TELL YOU THAT THIS IS ABOUT AN ECCENTRIC MAN WHO READS TOO MANY ROMANTIC TALES. It is also A STORY. IT IS DERIVED FROM THE FAMOUS NOVEL.”

Back then I thought the conceit was the problem—and at bottom it is, since there’s nothing dramatic about reading a book or being dreamy. But on Tuesday the intro’s new layers of intention, weight, and comic timing revealed the secret of good theater: when Kirill Zaretskiy added irony and drama to each of Don Q’s gestures he made the physical language large and sweetly absurd, bringing some imagination to what used to be a clanking void. It changed those minutes from dead to animate, ponderous to gently daft, and prepared us for the slapstick of the altogether hilariously down-to-earth Sancho Panza (Pascal Molat) dashing in, skidding on one leg, trying to hide with a leg of stolen ham or lamb under the table. Even though the Spanish housewives following the thief were too decorous for the job (its own little anticlimax), they couldn’t extinguish the fire ignited by Panza and his boss.

With the mechanics more adroitly out of the way, the company was free this year to let loose. And did they—with more Morris than Moorish bravura, perhaps, but buckets of bravura all the same. Not only did the principals, demi-soloists and corps comport themselves with a sparkling liveliness, they also seemed to have enormous fun. Without that, Don Q is just another excuse for a string of stunning folk-inspired set pieces.

This year most of those set pieces were stunners. Stand-outs were Ruben Martin as the matinee idol Espada in Act I, who uses his cape somewhere between kitschy accoutrement, magician’s tool and dangerous weapon. Frances Chung and Dores Andre as Kitri’s friends were powerhouses in the making, although they're not ready to throw caution to the wind--they're still trying to sublimate their considerable technique to sheer expression. (Chung, in particular, seems on the edge of consistent artistic daring.) In Act II, Hansuke Yamamoto as the Gypsy Leader had crisp command of his tempestuous grand allegro, a command that seems to grow with every new stage appearance. Sarah Van Patten’s Mercedes performed the back-bending renversés with sultry bombshell beauty and devoured the stage with vixen plasticity (let’s see her next time as Kitri). In Don Q’s Dream, Yuan Yuan Tan was an ethereal Queen of the Driads and Elizabeth Miner danced Cupid as sweetly and delectably as butter icing.

Act I brought us the gorgeous if somewhat too serious band of Toreadors who offer glamour to the folk proceedings the way Kitty Carlisle’s arias class up A Night At the Opera. They’re just this side of goofy, as everything in commedia dell’arte is and should be. Magnify that solemn hauteur bullfighters’s have—these are guys whose job puts them face to face with death, after all—and their incongruity as a dancing sextet would be both more dramatic and more delightful.

As for Tina LeBlanc and Gonzalo Garcia--think thrilling sparklers as opposed to exploding fireworks. Each time they stepped out of the crowd to perform, they pulled the ballet together rather than overwhelmed it, which was one of the reasons this Don Q. was so memorable. The other was the sheer magic of their dancing.

LeBlanc may not have a scintilla of Catalan blood in her, but she performs an ingenuously scrappy Kitri more bright and earthy than fiery and utterly believable as the young woman who has a plan for her future wildly at odds with her father’s designs. She wants to marry the delectable barber Basilio (and is able to keep the slightly callow boy in his place along the way); dad plans to pawn her off on the absurd but affluent fop Gamache (in hilariously send-up by Damian Smith).

The buzz in some quarters is that only Lorena Fejoo is truly suited to the role. That’s like saying there’s only one Giselle (Carlotta Grisi? Alicia Alonso? Gelsey Kirkland?). LeBlanc’s no gypsy, and she certainly doesn’t have Lorena Fejoo’s Roman nose, flashing temper, and arrogant tilt of head. LeBlanc may have more Euclidian purity to her dancing than the role actually needs, and her arms in high 5th suffer some droop here and there. But there's no female dancer in the company right now more musical than she, with so vast a spectrum of color to that musicality. LeBlanc creates a world of characters that rise up effortlessly from steps and gestures invested with precise shape, limned rhythm, and luxuriant rubato. Slicing through the air as brilliantly as a diamond-encrusted scalpel, she lets warmth, humor and generosity pour through the spaces she cuts. If Fejoo’s Kitri is volcanic, LeBlanc’s is sweet water on hot stone. Two brilliant dancers. Two brilliant Kitris.

Gonzalo Garcia, the fair Spaniard, dancing his last role in his career at SFB, met LeBlanc, chiseled step for chiseled step, hot pirouette for hot pirouette, and winning disposition for winning disposition. His circling leaps read as dizzying love and youthful energy, his perfectly placed jumps as eros in action. He’s a similar dancer to LeBlanc—his mathematically clean placement is the sluice through which whatever character or role he inhabits can flow. Here, that technical purity gave depth and torque to his boyish vanity and slightly prankish air. As scenes piled up, I began to see the charming Garcia and buoyant LeBlanc as the Celtic face of Spain, with Fejoo and Boada embodying its moodier, Moorish attitude. There’s nothing misplaced about that, either. The Spanish Garcia looks more Celtic than Arab, and why shouldn’t he? Spain is the intersection of wave after wave of invaders. The Celts poured in in the 9th century BCE to establish Celtiberian culture. They were followed by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Vandals and Visigoths. Muslim Arab-Berbers didn’t arrive until 700 AD.

In a big ballet, the structure is typically pyramidal with the few star characters populating the top of the structure, and the masses at the bottom, holding up the whole thing facelessly. Because of its meandering structure and picaresque style, and perhaps because small characters assume sudden great importance, as often happens in novels, Don Q has a loose and egalitarian quality, and the company approached it this year as a communal undertaking, rather like Mark Morris’ Sylvia. The dancers seemed to love being on stage together and delight in the silliness as much as the virtuosity. For me, it’s precisely this insouciance and camaraderie that shows the modern face of SFB the best.

(Note to Helgi: how about a series of Sunday matinees, call them A Dance Tasting, and offer us comparative works: Moorish then Celtic looking versions of Don Q’s duets; Balanchine’s Square Dance followed by Merce Cunningham’s Grange Eve; Fokine’s The Dying Swan and Ratmansky’s spoof of same, or other similar pairings.)

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