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A quest within reach

Storytelling mime and abstract dance alternate in George Balanchine's 'Don Q' at the Kennedy.

June 28, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the dance world, the title "Don Quixote" refers to a much-revised 19th century ballet-comedy about a barber and his girlfriend, with the leading characters from Cervantes' literary classic relegated to fleeting comic relief. The music a patchwork credited to Minkus, the steps changed to suit the tastes of virtuoso stars -- that's "Don Q."

But not always. Things changed in 1965, when George Balanchine commissioned a score from Nicolas Nabokov and used it as the basis for a serious -- indeed, somber -- full-evening dance drama about Quixote's quest. And they changed again last week, when Balanchine's 1965 Dulcinea and longtime muse, Suzanne Farrell, revived the work at the Kennedy Center with dancers from the National Ballet of Canada and her chamber company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

Unseen for more than a quarter of a century, Balanchine's "Don Q" reveals his limitations as much as his greatness -- and you can understand why it exasperated some audiences and critics 40 years ago. Following the pattern of the full-evening classics he danced in before he left Russia, it alternates storytelling mime and abstract dance -- huge chunks of each -- but only occasionally (in the passages involving Quixote and Dulcinea) fuses the two into movement that extends and deepens the narrative.

The first half of Act 1 is mime, followed by peasant dances and Quixote's destruction of a puppet show. Act 2 is all processions and exotic neoclassic divertissements (most of them brilliant) until Quixote is cruelly taunted by courtiers. Act 3 includes a haunting dream ballet, the windmill episode that every retelling depicts and a procession leading to Quixote's death. As a whole, it is very, very lumpy -- lumpier in fact than the other, earlier "Don Q" ballet became in its evolution though the 20th century.

The music helps, supplying a grand neo-Romantic theme for Dulcinea and quirky, astringent accompaniment for a string of showpieces that dazzle you with their speed, intricacy and surprise endings. There's a mock-glamorous solo titled "Ritournel" that you might imagine Balanchine creating for the Siren in "Prodigal Son," a "Courante Sicilienne" reminiscent of his vibrant "Tarantella," a "Rigaudon Flamenco" so complex in its partnering challenges and so full of startling inversions of classical technique that it out-Agons "Agon."

But there's something deeper going on in this version than storytelling and showpieces. Balanchine is using Cervantes to make a statement about futility: Every time Quixote rescues people they turn on him. He pursues a noble ideal and is mocked for it. He loves Dulcinea devotedly -- even seeing in her the incarnation of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene -- but only in dreams and death is that love fulfilled.

In 1965, the ballet was widely interpreted as a love letter to Farrell, with Balanchine casting himself opposite her as Quixote on opening night. But it's clear -- and heartbreaking -- that he saw all along that she would never be his, that someone else would carry her off and the best he could hope for was a loving embrace on his deathbed.

Balanchine left the ballet to Farrell in his will, and she has used a few films and her own memory of it to stitch together a new edition, one that sorts through all the cuts and additions that Balanchine made and arrives at what she considers a cohesive, communicative whole. By necessity, she has taught the result to a generation of dancers who could never have seen it back when she was its star and inspiration.

Two casts danced "Don Quixote" in the Kennedy Center Opera House on Sunday, the last day of its Washington run. (The production has been scheduled to join the National Ballet of Canada's repertoire sometime after this season.) In the afternoon, Heather Ogden's sweetness as Dulcinea warmed the most intimate passages; in the evening, Sonia Rodriguez capitalized on velocity and sharpness of attack, qualities that helped focus the dream ensemble. In the title role at both performances, Momchil Mladenov partnered these ballerinas with a sense of wonder and also skillfully interacted with Eric Ragan as Sancho Panza.

Many of the finest soloists turned up in a number of roles, and it was always exciting to share the delight and feeling of discovery exuded by such artists as Natalia Magnicaballi, Runqiao Du, Bonnie Pickard, Jared Redick, Erin Mahoney, Alexander Ritter, Shannon Parsley and Nehemiah Kish.

Complete with children, a horse and a donkey, the production is lavish, featuring imaginative new sets and large-scale special effects by Zack Brown as well as an array of costumes by Holly Hynes evoking those of the original staging. On Sunday the score was lovingly conducted by Ron J. Matson at the matinee and Ormsby Wilkins in the evening, each making a strong case for music that attracted its share of disapproval when the ballet was new.

Obviously, people could be impatient with the imperfections of the Balanchine/Nabokov "Don Quixote" 40 years ago because these were working artists with new creations in their futures. Now, though, there will be no new Balanchine masterpieces, and no one in the 22 years since his death has taken his place as ballet's torchbearer. So this enlightened restoration of the most neglected and personal of his full-length works is not just news but an experience that takes us deep into the soul of genius.

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