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El Cheapo Version : Ballet Theatre Recycles Baryshnikov's 'Quixote'

March 22, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music/Dance Critic

When Los Angeles first caught up with Mikhail Baryshnikov's elegant-circus production of "Don Quixote" back in 1979, the tawdry indulgence served as a no-expense-spared, often amusing, emphatically stellar attraction.

Inheriting central duties designed for the recalcitrant Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, glittered and flirted outrageously--and magnificently--as the mischievous Kitri.

Baryshnikov having temporarily defected to Balanchine, the central pizazz and wit of Basil--the barber of La Mancha, and environs--became the temporary property of an eminently royal, eminently welcome visitor, Anthony Dowell.

The extraordinarily colorful, solid, complex, old-fashioned sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto attempted, bravely and lavishly, to satisfy Baryshnikov's provocative mandate. The boss wanted "Goya crossed with Yves St. Laurent."

Times have changed.

Thursday night, American Ballet Theatre took "Don Quixote" out of mothballs--literally, we think--and ground out an automatic smile-jump-and-be-happy ritual at Shrine Auditorium. Another opening, another show . . . .

It certainly wasn't a bad show. Often bright and occasionally brash, it was eagerly executed by a hard-dancing, obviously talented company. The audience liked it a lot. But audiences in Los Angeles have short memories, if they have memories at all.

It would be ridiculous to pretend that the Ballet Theatre "Don Quixote" ever resembled a masterpiece. The original version, however, did convey a certain integrity of style, not to mention an undoubted opulence of tone. By comparison, the current edition looks like an unreasonable bus-and-truck facsimile.

The most striking decline involves Loquasto's sets. Gone is the atmospheric village square. Gone is the mysterious, shadowy gypsy camp. Gone is the glittery, ethereal locale that harbored Quixote's dream images. Gone is the quaintly rustic tavern. All are gone, and the company deems a public acknowledgement, explanation or apology unnecessary.

New York, we discover, still gets to see Loquasto's expensive inventions. For the road--where tickets cost up to $40--a few painted curtains and some ubiquitous, skeletal side structures must do.

What used to suggest storybook realism now adheres, clumsily, to stylization by default and to misplaced, unintentional abstraction. For Los Angeles, "Don Quixote" el cheapo is good enough.

Although the stage could not be dominated by personalities like Makarova and Dowell--in those days, we had faces!--the current management did muster a relatively strong cast Thursday.

Martine van Hamel exuded generosity and strength, with classical purity to spare, in an oddly heroic, vaguely charming impersonation of Kitri. She sustained time-stopping balances and cranked out dizzy networks of embellished fouettes as nonchalantly as she flashed a devastating smile.

But she did not do much to project character. In a challenge that sometimes invites and even benefits from that very quality, she didn't begin to flirt with vulgarity. She was content to be playful, virtuosic and fundamentally classy.

She was well-matched, on various levels, by Kevin McKenzie, who danced Basil with expected clarity, unexpected bravado, and nice, muted wit. He partnered his statuesque ballerina with unflinching sympathy, and staunchly delivered the goods when it came to the climactic one-arm lifts at the end of Act I.

In general, the motley maneuvers of Baryshnikov--not to mention those of Petipa, Gorsky, Elena Tchernichova and, for all we know, Busby Berkeley--were better served in matters of dance than of mime.

A supermacho Patrick Bissell gobbled up the stage every time he flourished the cape of Espada the matador. Cheryl Yeager tippy-toed through a sweet Tinkerbell imitation as Amour. Alina Hernandez could do little more than look suitably sultry as Mercedes, since she was deprived of the famous dagger solo in Act I and of all the classical bravura in Act II (where, for no apparent reason, the lovely Susan Jaffe took over). Lucette Katerndahl (replacing Leslie Browne) and the constantly eye-catching Amanda McKerrow capitalized on the fleeting lieutenant-ballerina duties.

For comic relief, such as it was, Roman Greller wore the right makeup and struck the right poses as the walk-on Quixote, but didn't define anything individual; Thomas Titone introduced an overdrawn, decidedly swishy Gamache, and Terrence Orr underplayed the cutesy tribulations of Sancho Panza.

In the pit, Alan Barker tended rather stodgily to Ludwig Minkus' chronic if not terminal tinsel.

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