PNB’s Sunny, Funny Don Quixote

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Don Quixote is not your average 19th-century ballet classic. First, it’s a comedy. Second, there’s no magic. Third, it’s about mostly normal people and a mostly normal romance, plus a handful of nutty gentlemen. Pacific Northwest Ballet chose well to perform this ballet, bathed in Barcelona sunshine, just as Seattleites begin to tire of the endless grey. Alexei Ratmansky’s staging (of Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky) nails the ballet’s bright, lighthearted tone with a smart balance of dazzling choreography and physical comedy. Certain aspects of the ballet are a bit thin—that old Ludwig Minkus score and even the overall plot—but they are not enough to detract from a wholly delightful experience.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carla Körbes with company dancers in Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote
Photo © Angela Sterling

The ballet is called Don Quixote, of course, but it draws only loosely from the Cervantes novel. The bulk of the plot revolves around Kitri, an inkeeper’s daughter slated to marry the rich Gamache, and Basilio, her humble barber boyfriend. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza wander into their Barcelona village on their knight errant’s quest, and everybody’s lives entwine at several key moments that, in the end, lead to the marriage of Kitri and Basilio. Opening night on Friday, January 31, featured a star-studded cast: Carla Körbes and Batkhurel Bold led the dancing cast as Kitri and Basilio, while guests Tom Skerritt and Allen Galli (stars of screen and stage, respectively) portrayed Don Quixote and his faithful Sancho Panza. Skerritt and Galli are such brilliant comic actors it’s almost a shame they didn’t get more stage time. Who can forget Skerritt’s bewilderment at the disappearance of his books (his servants hid them), or Galli’s little jig as the village girls teased him? PNB has its share of talented comedians, as well. Jonathan Porretta made an amusingly foppish Gamache, traveling in his sedan chair, and Körbes herself displayed a natural and utterly charming sense of comic timing throughout.

Körbes and Bold played their romance like the boy and girl next door: sweet and un-scandalous, but filled with zesty joie de vivre (if one can use a French term for a Russian ballet set in Spain). Their dancing had some uncertain fumbles, but when they were on, they were on. Those infamous one-arm lifts in Act I lasted a jaw-droppingly long time. The shock came in the Grand Pas, when Körbes actually fell during her variation. However, it hardly damaged her overall performance. It’s a good reminder that even great ballerinas fall—and Körbes is a great ballerina. She bounced back, of course, and even threw in a few awe-inspiring balances to remind us of her mettle. She and Bold performed the coda with sharp technique and plenty of flair, inspiring a standing ovation before the ballet was over. Seattle dance fans are like good Seattle sports fans: they’ll cheer you on through thick and thin.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Lindsi Dec with company dancers in Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote
Photo © Angela Sterling

Nevertheless, the night belonged to Karel Cruz and Lindsi Dec, who sizzled as Espada and Mercedes. The two are married in real life, so their chemistry is accompanied by real trust (catch them as Basilio and Kitri on Sunday, February 8, at 7PM). Cruz commanded undivided attention with every entrance, and Dec carried herself like a queen. They are both quite tall, and their combination of height and stage presence made them right at home under the set’s endless sky. Cruz also knows how to handle a cape; he and his corps of Toreros swirled their brightly colored capes in perfect unison—one of the ballet’s giddiest moments of delight.

The weakest link in the production isn’t one easily done away with. Don Quixote is not the ballet to take your music-loving friend to, with the promise that they can close their eyes and pretend it’s the symphony if they get bored. Minkus is a far cry from Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, or even Délibes or Adam, who wrote lovely scores even before ballet music was a thing to be taken seriously. Minkus’ score is heavy on repetition and light on substance. The dance sections are pleasant and sound fun to dance to, but the exposition scenes become tedious after the first act. By Act III, everything, with the exception of the Grand Pas, sounds too familiar. Still, the PNB Orchestra, conducted by Emil de Cou, played marvelously, imbuing the music with life from start to finish. The PNB Orchestra, now playing its 25th anniversary season, is a large part of what makes going to the ballet a cultural outing with such broad appeal: each production is a dance performance and a music concert.

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Allen Galli as Sancho Panza and Tom Skerritt as Don Quixote, with Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote
Photo © Angela Sterling

The ballet as a whole is strongest in Act I, when everything is fresh. The music is still charming, the story has yet to unfold along its contrived twists and turns, and a full cast of dancers and actors revel in physical comedy interspersed with stellar dancing. The ensemble of Sequidillas and Toreros (along with the adorable street children) carry the ballet with enthusiasm as well as a corps de ballet’s skill of working together. A few later moments recall the energy of the first act—particularly Basilio’s fake death scene in Act III—but it’s hard to beat the standard set by Act I. However, Jérôme Kaplan’s sets and costumes ensure the ballet is a visual feast from start to finish. The imposing stone interiors of Don Quixote’s study and the tavern opened out to become a Barcelona square backed by a radiant sky. Everyone was brightly clad, but Kitri’s red dress stood out for its perfect simplicity and pure, rich hue. The dream sequence (led by a gracious Lesley Rausch as Queen of the Dryads) featured an otherworldly glade with Grecian-attired ballerinas.

A final word about the lighting. James F. Ingalls filled the stage with lighting that seemed to come from the heavens themselves. Act I blazed with a noon sun, Act II with the moon, Act III with a sunset fit for Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s final ride. Need a break from the Seattle rain? Top-notch dancing, excellent comedy, and a sun-drenched locale make Don Quixote the perfect winter getaway ballet.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Don Quixote continues February 4-8, 2015, at McCaw Hall. Tickets and more information at PNB.org.