Based on two chapters from the 17th century Spanish novel of the same name by Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote was first performed in Moscow by the Ballet of the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in December 1869. It was choreographed by Marius Petipa (1818-1910) to a score by Ludwig Minkus (1826-1917), but subsequently heavily revised and is now performed along the same lines as a version staged by Alexander Gorsky (1871-1924) in 1900.
Although the ballet is named after the eponymous hero of the novel the main action centres around the romance between Kitri and Basilio. Kitri’s innkeeper father is determined to marry her off to the wealthy Gamache instead, so the lovers conspire to run away together. Basilio fakes suicide and, while ‘dying’, convinces Kitri’s father to promise him her hand in marriage. Promise secured, he miraculously recovers and the ballet ends with their wedding.
Along the way there are encounters with toreadors, gypsies, dryads and street performers. Don Quixote himself appears with his faithful servant Sancho Panza in the prologue, mentally transported by the chivalric novels he reads until he decides to take up arms and set off on quest. In the four subsequent Acts he appears more as an observer from the sidelines than a central participant in the action. Kitri is one of the two women he mistakes for ‘Dulcinia’, his imagined lady-love, but in the true tradition of chivalry he seeks the happiness of his beloved rather than her hand.
Although the presence of Don Quixote and the romance of the young lovers weave as a continuous thread through the ballet each Act also has its own cast of very different characters and are virtually independent vignettes. Whilst this does make the ballet feel somewhat disjointed it is also a very effective portrayal of Don Quixote’s mental state: trapped in a delusional world of his own he relates to reality as a sequence of fantastical stories in which the woods are home to dryads and windmills are fearsome giants.
The version I watched was performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersberg by the Mariinsky Ballet accompanied by the Mariinsky Orchestra, which was conducted by Pavel Bubelnikov. The role of Don Quixote was danced by Vladimir Ponomarev, Kitri by Olisya Novikova, and Basilio by Leonid Saralanov. Although the novel (which I read years ago) was a bit of a challenge I’m getting quite a taste for ballet and enjoyed the charm and variety of this one. Ponomarev’s Quixote particularly charmed me with his hollow cheeks and wistful gaze, and I also appreciated the way the film version was presented, opening with shots of the gorgeous Marinsky Theatre which lent a certain vicarious ambiance to the experience. It’s not the same as being there, but it’s a passable substitute when the real thing is out of my reach.