The inspiration for DON QUIXOTE as a ballet comes from Miguel de Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote de la Mancha. Marius Petipa created the first ballet staging in 1869 for the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, and it has since been celebrated in one form or another all over the world. This latest staging, Maina Gielgud’s DON QUIXOTE, performed by the Cape Town City Ballet, celebrates the ballet as an amalgamation of various influences.
Over the years, the ballet expression of DON QUIXOTE has morphed and developed, with many choreographers leaving their mark on the Petipa original, most notably perhaps Rudolf Nureyev. In fact, ballet lore has it that Nureyev’s 1982 staging of DON QUIXOTE (which he originally created for the Vienna State Opera Ballet in 1966) put the Boston Ballet on the map. It's also Nureyev’s version in which Maina Gielgud herself enchanted audiences in the 70s as Kitri opposite his Basilio. To then say that Gielgud knows something of the charm and magic of the classic tale of DON QUIXOTE would be an understatement, especially if one considers she also brought Nureyev’s vision of this beloved ballet back to the Boston Ballet with a 2012 staging.
The version Capetonians are now blessed to see, Gielgud’s DON QUIXOTE, embraces Nureyev’s characteristic charisma and fast paced movements, while adding her own personal touch to the staging, which still gives a nod to the vision of Petipa, “the father of classical ballet”. It was therefore with heightened levels of excited anticipation that this ballet-lover took her Artscape Opera House seat at the Cape Town City Ballet’s staging of Gielgud’s DON QUIXOTE on opening night.
The ballet is a mixed bag of artistic expression. The prologue is a beautiful introduction of Don Quixote (Eduard Greyling) and his right-hand-man, Sancho Panza (Kholekile Biyongo), as the audience gets a sense of Quixote's dreams of heroic battles.
This moves swiftly into Act 1, revealing a very busily populated stage. Here, the movement of numerous groupings of performers can distract and cause the eye to wander away from the main performance focus, but it also means there’s never a shortage of magic to discover onstage. A special shout-out to two very charming tiny dancers (wish I could mention them by name) who step into the roles of tavern waitresses aiding the humoristic inn-keeper antics of Lorenzo (Mervyn Williams). The two youngsters have great stage presence, I suspect we will be seeing these two young ballerinas lighting up stages in future too.
Back to the crux of the ballet, Act 1 sets the scene to reveal that the two central lovers, Basilio and Kirti, face an uphill battle as Kitri’s father, Lorenzo, is hell-bent on his daughter marrying rich and basically anyone but her true love Basilio.
In Act 2, the stage becomes less crowded and initially more somber (yet always vivid in movement) with the focus shifting to the gypsy camp where Basilio and Kitri seek refuge and protective support for their forbidden love. It is also in this setting where the audience sees Don Quixote step forward as the champion of these lovers.
Although the ballet carries his name as title, there is little character development for our main man Don. In fact, Don Quixote’s quintessential skirmish with a windmill, which finds expression in Act 2, feels more like a filler scene than a pivotal moment in the unfolding story. It’s supposed to give the audience a clear perspective of his search for his own true love, Dulcinea, but it fails to suitably establish this link before we move into the hallucination scene where Don Quixote dreams himself entering the kingdom of the Dryads. Here the Dryad Queen and Cupid reveal to him Dulcinea who greatly resembles Kitri.
If one doesn’t know something of the story of Don Quixote, I fear that the missing connecting dots may leave an audience slightly confused as to the transition between scenes in Act 2. That however takes nothing away from the magnificence of the Dryad scene, which is arguably the most striking of the ballet. I would go back to see it all again just for this scene: classic and elegant, yet mischievous, it’s absolutely beautiful to behold. This scene allows one to really appreciate the majestic elements of ballet that Gielgud is known to celebrate.
Act 3 takes the audience into the happily-ever-after (via detour of a mock-suicide) with our lovers ending up at a jubilant wedding celebration. This quick narrative turn may again divide story-purists and dance-fans, but ultimately the audience will more often than not find DON QUIXOTE as ballet to be a fast-paced frolicking delight with a touch of farce. Regardless of the gaps that one could poke at if you were to be overly pedantic, the jubilation of this lively ballet allows both audience and dancers to breathe and simply feel the bliss of the music conveyed through dance –that is the true triumph to savour.
Even though I describe the narrative turns throughout as “quick”, the ballet itself surpasses the two-hour mark in length, yet at no point did it ever feel as if it was dragging thanks to the fluidity of movement and pace on display. In fact, regardless of plot holes, I was engaged throughout.
The dancers are clearly getting as much pleasure out of this production as the audience, with the music allowing for exuberant expression of not only their technique but also their passion for the art form. Leané Theunissen (Dryad Queen), Emma Sanchez (Cupid), Mikayla Isaacs (Mercedes), Hannah Ward (one of the Girlfriends) and Jonathan Leyva (Basilio) radiated gleeful energy with heightened impact on opening night: They surpassed the focus on pure technique and fully embodied the personas of their characters.
The partnership between Levya and Kirstel Paterson (Kitri) is the most comfortable pas de deux I’ve seen Paterson in for a while. The duo gives off a sense of blissful ease, as their performance carries with it the impression of tender youthful romance required of the Basilio-Kitri connection. While Levya and Paterson bring the romantic component to stage, the pairing of Isaacs and Leusson Muniz (Espada) radiates sensuality, their performance being pure ballet swagger (if that isn’t an official term, it should be!).
What stole my heart overall was seeing Eduard Greyling onstage as Don Quixote himself. His movements may be smaller and slower, but this ballet legend still has the charm and charisma to own any stage with a soft dignity that serves this character well. I teared up when I saw the curtain lift on his prologue reveal. Perhaps this is because of the fact that my love for ballet is rooted in a shared history, as both of us sat at the feet of the same instructor, Jennifer Louw, albeit at different stages in life. Such sentimentality aside, I do believe anyone with a love for ballet will appreciate the greatness of the moment when Greyling steps onto the stage once again.
The set design by Michael Mitchell is lovely and compliments the overall charm of the production. Fahiem Bardien’s lighting design places the set, as well as the performance, in the spotlight as always. The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra again partners with the Cape Town City Ballet at select performance to add their bewitching musical touch to this enchanting production, this time under the guidance of world-renowned conductor, Jonathan McPhee.
Ultimately, DON QUIXOTE is more about the comedic elements, romantic nuances, and exquisite dancing than it is about the story that’s a bit fluffy at times, and that’s okay, as it makes for a charming night at the ballet!
You have until 2 September 2023 to experience Gielgud’s DON QUIXOTE at the Artscape Opera House, with tickets via Computicket. Please note that the cast varies per performance. As an extra treat, Cape Town City Ballet is running a Women’s Month Special of 3 tickets for the price of 2, though the offer is limited. So why not make it a girls-night-out at the ballet when you book via Computicket.