DON QUIXOTE: Fantasies of the Madman Eifman Ballet

It would be an easy piece of business to dismantle Boris Eifman’s 1994 version of the the ballet classic Don Quixote set in the confines of a dungeon-like mental institution for its extravagant take on the familiar ballet and all its time-worn conventions. Easy that is, until you consider the vast resources of deeply personal dancing and choreography and the overwhelming vision of theatricality that Eifman brings to this 2010 restaging of the ballet. Suddenly it might seem that it is the traditional versions that feel tired with their casts of pretty, dancing villagers, toreadors and fan-snapping women.

Eifman has made a name for himself and his adventurous company with his large scale revamped versions of both literary and dance classics, always turning the spotlight on the psychological underpinnings of his stories which for the most part expose the dark recesses of his main characters. And though this version diverges radically from the standard story, Eifman has at least given us a sympathetic Don Quixote rather than the cardboard one of the Petipa ballet. Here, the original sunny, rural Spain of Kitri’s Wedding becomes the caged Don Quixote’s Barcelona, an escape from the torments of his own personal Bedlam and that of his fellow inmates. The production makes it seem plausible and the results are, at times, riveting.

Eifman has not abandoned the original staging in its entirety. Many sections with their traditional music remain intact including Basilio’s feigned suicide, and the toreadors with their phalanx of capes which accompany Kitri’s traveling turns. Other familiar moments have been recast such as the entrance of the toreadors which is played by the inmates using their blankets as capes. Gone altogether is the grand pas de deux, replaced by a brief wedding pas de deux that does not nearly match the grandeur of the original.

Mostly it is in the intimate duos and solo dancing that this Don Quixote takes flight and that is in no small part due to prodigious expressive dancing and acting by Sergey Volobuiev, who unifies the production with a character that deepens in appeal as the ballet unfolds. He is alternately comic, heroic and deeply pitiable. The continued duel between his inner desolation and the imagined world beyond the asylum moves the story ahead with a sense of purpose and delivers it all with unrelenting pathos.

Particularly remarkable was the partnering, especially in the Tavern Scene where Quixote dances with Dulcinea played by Anastasia Sitnikova, and the pas de deux with the madhouse doctor played with chilling physical aloofness by Yulia Manzheles. Measured against these deep expressions of psychological interaction the classical dancing shared by Basilio and Kitri (played by Alexei Turko and Natalia Matsak) seemed less striking though Ms. Matsak could no doubt deliver a full-blooded Kitri with all the flare of the best of the traditionalists. In the end, the dancing of the inmates and the dancing in the imagined world of Kitri and Basilio collide purposefully. In the asylum, they dance like lunatics, and in the world outside, eccentricity is replaced by classicism.

The sets and costuming by Vyacheslav Okunev were remarkable, especially the ghostly costumes of the inmates who carry their chamber pots like a ball and chain. They never lapse into generic posturing or physicality to convey their condition. The two tiers of arches double as part of the village scene as well as the interior of the tavern. We are always in mind of the inevitable return to world of the insane and the painful bifurcation of Quixote’s world. Also magnificent, were the oversized demons of Act II, who replace
Quixote’s showdown with the windmill from Petipa’s original. Eifman may be playing fast and loose with his production but it is obvious that he knows the Don Quixote playbook, and like any Russian steeped in its history, he knows what is essential.

Eifman has abbreviated his ballet to fit into two acts. The score is still the familiar music of Ludwig  Minkus, but the company is touring with recorded music for its performances. That a large company such as Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg and a venue like Segerstrom Center for the Arts can’t find a way to put a real orchestra in the pit is a diminishment that will hurt big time ballet more than any tinkering with traditional models. In the end it was music that felt wanting in an evening that was full of brilliant dancing, inventive theater and vivid imagination

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