Ballet Nacional de Cuba Dances in a Faded Don Quixote

Ballet Nacional de Cuba has been in Los Angeles with its production of Don Quixote in a version of the ballet that aims to blend hispanidad and cubanismo in varying proportions. Alicia Alonso, the company’s famed director and guiding light, has made it her cause to present the ballet in a first ever production (1988) that acknowledges roots that are genuinely Spanish. That would be an exciting thing if, in the process, so much wonderful choreography and useful ballet tradition had not been left behind. But in this production, nearly all the original, magnificent Spanish dance seen through Russian eyes has been replaced by Alonso’s often fussy and even awkward choreography. More often than not, convincing acting and a judicious use of mime were also in short supply but it was the absence of compelling movement that was the great disappointment of the evening.

It is difficult to imagine how, in the search for Spanish roots, Alonzo arrives at costuming that finds eight women in purple tutus as part of the wedding celebration in Act III or a band of gypsies swathed in pastels in Act II. The production, more often than not, veers from its stated intentions, and no more so than in Don Quixote’s dream scene where the Dryads all seem to be suited up like refugees from Giselle rather than a newly remade band of Dryads for the landscapes of la Mancha. The later would have been something worth seeing, but instead we are served up classicism more in keeping with an aloof band of Rhinelanders. Instinctually you feel that Alonso’s take is conditioned more by her own personal history as a dancer and especially one who is heavily invested in the great roles from the classics. For now, that special Spanish of version of Don Quixote is going to have to wait for a more inventive choreographer than Alonso.

The one very bright spot all night was Yanela Piñera as Kitri who danced with passion and precision and in doing so put herself beyond the ken of her Basilio, José Losada, who struggled all evening to look comfortable or accomplished. Losada muffed two important entrances in which the music began without him and he felt underpowered from his first encounters with Piñera. In his first solo in Act I (in the original choreography, a pas de trois with two women) his dancing seemed half-hearted at best. It was just one of the moments where simply dancing the original choreography would have played better and avoided disappointments. Piñera was especially brilliant in Act III where her extended balances, turns and virtuoso flair all came into sharp focus. Also excellent were Amaya Rodriguez as Mercedes, Lissi Báez as the Dryad Queen and Ariadna Suarez as Dulcinea. Roberto Vega as the Gypsy soloist was also exceptional. You could have wished for his panache and heat in Basilio’s role. Vega at least delivered the goods when his moments came.

In her comments on the ballet Alonso makes a special point about restoring authenticity to the role of Don Quixote  but his characterization for this performance penetrates no more deeply than others I have seen. True, she has given the character more stage time especially in Act II where his dream drives a lengthy and stylish classical diversion but he still seems the incidental character of most productions. The role was played efficiently but without much soul by Leandro Pérez. Eifman Ballet’s Don Quixote (seen recently at Segerstrom Center for the Arts) actually remakes the central character with more purpose than any of the historical versions but its setting in an asylum stands on its head the notion of this ballet as a jovial grand divertissement with a familiar story. In the end, all the tinkering reveals just how refined are the original versions and why they continue to enjoy wide popularity.

And though it may come across as “piling on”, the shop worn, tired sets for this Don Quixote proved a constant distraction, especially so when the dancers banged into them in their energetic exits. It reminds you of just how far the twenty year economic downturn of the “special period” in Cuba can reach when you see a formerly magnificent company getting by with tattered props, dated backdrops and mediocre lighting concepts. One felt especially sympathetic looking at what passed for Quixote’s trusty steed, Rozinante, which for all the world looked like a children’s toy banged together by an artless uncle. And yet Ballet Nacional de Cuba is still the little engine that could of the ballet world and its dancers continue to light up audiences, even under trying circumstances.

The music for Don Quixote (Minkus) was played with omissions by members of The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra conducted by the company’s Cuban director, Giovanni Duarte. They were especially effective in the music for Act II where subtle and sustained playing lent depth to Quixote’s vision of Dulcinea and the Dryads.

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