All Things Entertaining and Cultural
There’s a windmill, a sidekick, and a doddering elderly man who wears a gold barber’s lavabo for a helmet, but Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha is only a token figure in Angel Corella’s world premiere setting of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1869 take on “Don Quixote” for Pennsylvania Ballet.
That is less an oversight than a blessing that yields incalculable rewards, especially when Mayara Pineiro, Etienne Diaz, Lauren Fadeley, Jermel Johnson, Ana Calderon, Arian Molina Soca, Oksana Maslova, and Kathryn Manger thrillingly demonstrate how varied, how exciting, how beautiful, and how exhilaratingly physical classical dance can be.
Extra enjoyment ensues when Ludwig Minkus’s Eastern European-derived score is wittily tinged with Spanish rhythms and romantic guitars while flamenco steps, matador’s sweeps and fades, Mediterranean passion, and deft uses of capes and tambourines reinforce how meticulous, how versatile, and how talented Corella’s corps of dancers is.
Pineiro, Diaz, and company exhibit a fastidious combination of discipline and suppleness as they perform a stunning array of movements, acrobatic feats, and classical dance maneuvers with panache and ease. Corella’s “Don Quixote” celebrates both dance and the flexibility of the human body by putting on a display that veritably catalogs the vocabulary of dance. Corella doesn’t miss ballet staple from arabseques to toes en pointe. His dancers go through rigorous combinations with poise and zeal. A lovely pas de deux can be followed by high-speed jetés that match the quickness of Minkus’s music and Iberian adaptations to it.
Sequence after sequences delights and fascinates. This “Don Quixote” is a comprehensive showcase that proves Philadelphia has one of the best ballet ensembles anywhere, luxuriating in dancers that can entertain while being classical, comic, or taking physical risks while making it seem nothing is difficult or out of the ordinary. “So I leap in the air and fall at a precise angle so my partner can catch me at my rib cage and mid-calves just before it appears I might hit the ground! A piece of cake.”
And of what savory sweetness! People who come to the Academy of Music expecting “Man of La Mancha” or an enactment of Cervantes’s masterpiece may in for a surprise. Confusion will turn to delight when they see Corella’s troupe at work. It will be clear why the story of Don Quixote provides a mere framework and that the knight will make some token appearances between, and amid, some glorious dancing.
Petipa and Ivanov knew almost 150 years ago the character Don Quixote might be cumbersome to put on stage in a ballet. He is old, often injured, and has only a fantasy romance. Dances created for him would have to be comic and account for both his physical and delusional infirmities. The choreographers solved their dilemma by having the good Don, an icon of Spanish literature, become an observer in the courtyards, encampments, inns, and taverns he and Sancho happen upon during his quest for glory. In village squares and innyards, he can mingle among the hidalgos and common folk of his, and Corella’s, native Spain. One of Corella settings looks a lot like the sardana, the folk dance performed en masse by habitués and visitors alike outside Barcelona’s cathedral every Sunday.
By moving sequences to public places, Quixote becomes an occasional participant or catalyst of action. He gets into a scrape or two, tilts with that famous windmill, and achieves a heroic deed with efficient dispatch, then retreats to a corner while young characters, embodying the more danceable acts of joy, jealousy, flirtation, rivalry, romance, and ecstatic love take center stage. The Quixote figure in this ballet accomplishes the most while he is dreaming as he recuperates after his heady tussle with the windmill.
Corella follows Petipa’s suit regarding Quixote. His work involves creating new dance sequences within the structure Petipa, Ivanov, and Minkus, set down. They have sorted out of the plot and devised a way to put Don Quixote on stage. Corella takes that structure and makes it vibrant with passages that are marvelous to behold as they occur and memorable enough to appreciate later. He does this with aplomb.
For the first full-length program he’s choreographed as Ballet’s artistic director, he concentrates on his magnificent corps and assigns them some entertaining and breathtaking moves while leaving Quixote in the background as a unifying device who gets involved in every scene, but briefly and marginally.
Cervantes’s Don Quixote is left on the pages of his 16th century novel. Corella sets his sights on dance and puts on a pyrotechnic display of styles, techniques, attitude, and daring. Pineiro and Diaz, as the featured leads on opening night, border on the amazing as they go through an entire repertory of ballet in their various sequences. Pineiro is dazzling in a rapid series of pirouettes. Diaz makes great feats of strength, such as lifting Pineiro with one hand from the level of his hip to mid-air and holding her above his head with the effortless nonchalance of someone raising a glass of cava ina toast. Diaz, while catching Pineiro in various impressive, and seemingly impromptu, leaps, make all appear equally effortless and painless.
Each of the leads provides several outstanding moments, together and separately. Their virtuosity is astounding, and Corella’s “Don Quixote” compounds the astonishment when Johnson, Soca, Manger, and others go through their spectacular paces. Matthew Neenan, a dancer known more in recent years for his choreography, contributes as well, in a cameo role as a pompous nobleman who thinks his wealth will earn him Pineiro’s character’s hand in marriage, from her obsequious father if not from the woman herself, and who has a few confrontations with Quixote among others. The energy exuded from the Academy stage could light Philadelphia for a year. Corella’s “Don Quixote” is that elating and vivacious.
The first scene, a prologue that introduces Quixote to us, is ominous and should be regarded as a gratuitous set-up. A man, still Alonso Quijana, lumbers about, Charles Askegard taking broad, deliberate steps in that prancing walk male ballet dancers use in coming stage center for their bows. He seems old and possibly senile, but he is struck with inspiration. All of a sudden R. Colby Damon’s Sancho Panza is handing the man the gold lavabo, which he places on his head, and a long, lathed wooden dowel he uses as a lance, and the two are off. A nice bit of fantasy comes when a woman, dressed beautifully in all white, appears suspended in a horizontal flying position, right arm outstretched towards Quixote, 15 feet off the stage, stage right, She seemingly appeals to the now fully-armored Don Quixote, as a vision of his dream, the damsel he must save, his Dulcinea.
The next scene, the one that defines characters and sets Petipa’s plot in motion bring us to sunny square in a town that could only be in Spain. Michael Korsch’s lights reflect like the sun off an tan-baked stucco walls and red bricks. The scene is festive, in classical performance tones. There’s a crowd milling, but it seems a little still and sterile until Pineiro enters as Kitri, who seems to be the daughter of a tapster who keeps plying the courtyard denizen with drinks.
Kitri is attractive and popular, and she knows it. She’ll flounce and tease, but mostly, she’ll wait until the men notice and admire her. All of the men want to dance with Kitri, and several do, but you can tell there’s one who’s special. Kitri may not be ready to surrender a playful game of hard-to-get, but Pineiro conveys in Kitri’s clever way, she will reward this particular fellow’s advances when the time suits her.
This young man, Diaz’s Basilio, is a bit of a scamp. You can see right away he is not a favorite of Kitri’s father, Lorenzo, and that he can be a tease himself, hiding behind capes, interrupting people’s dances, and creating mayhem, all in an effort to be noticed by and dance with Kitri, who finds him amusing.
Her father, on the other hand, wants Basilio to leave the square and stay away from his daughter. “No, you’re not good enough,” he gestures in no uncertain terms.
Basilio has to fight off or outstare other suitors to Kitri. Corella makes there encounters alternately comic and dramatic, the first by Diaz’s mischievously cunning behavior, the second by hot flares of temperament.
You can tell which suitor Kitri’s father likes, and the character bound to be Basilio’s primary foil, when Neenan enters as Gamache, a peacock of a man dressed in fashionable courtly clothes that show he is a noble and means to use his station in life, and the money that goes with it, to spoil any other’s chances of winning Kitri.
Too bad Basilio already has her heart.
Corella uses this scene, and these plots, to work all kinds of magic. Spanish influence is everywhere. You see flamenco steps and patterns added to dances with more traditional choreography. Capes, mantillas, and scarves are used liberally as props, and some of the dancers, Pineiro and Jermel Johnson in particular, show a great knack for manipulating and making lovely swoops, loops, and sweeps with the fabric.
Minkus’s music has to be enhanced to sound Spanish, but where and in any way he can, Corella evokes his native land. Costumes, fans, those dexterity-revealing mantillas, sombreros, and those sun-baked walls establish locale, and advertise Spain as colorful, passionate, fun-loving, and romantic. A seguidilla, like the one Carmen longs to dance at Lilias Pastia’s, makes a lively scene more ebullient, the uncredited costume designer doing a witty job with the corps’ stiff tutus, which look like lavender vinyl records around the dancers’ waists and recall the “We’re in the Money” sequence of “42nd Street.”
It’s entertaining to see all of the antics Corella cooks up for Basilio and all the coy, but knowing and mischievous, wiles he gives to Kitri. Pineiro and Diaz play their comedy, and passion, well. They seems to like the chance to exude such broad personalities and to conspire with each other to make mayhem, knowing they are secure in their bond and letting anyone else, especially Lorenzo and Gamache, think as they will.
Don Quixote enters at just about the time you realize Kitri and Basilio have settled into being in love. They may tease each other some more, or do things to make the other jealous, but they are clearly a couple that can’t be torn asunder by Gamache, who chooses Quixote’s entrance to be his most obnoxious.
Corella keeps the ballet’s story immediate and clear while managing to concentrate mostly on dance. The little side glances, tricks with capes, and intentional snubs that end with intended kisses and hand holding, are integral to the constant movement of the crowd.
Corella doesn’t, as a rule, stop action to fit in dances. He finds to way to integrate them them into an advancing plot. When there is a pause as a soloist strikes a pose while waiting for the downbeat, you can bet something sensational is about to follow. “Don Quixote” is even more exciting when there’s no pose, pause, or downbeat, and dancers organically pick up the rhythm and ply their magic.
Amid the general liveliness, all engaging, are some flashy and fabulous choreographic feats. And not only by Pineiro and Diaz. Jermel Johnson and Lauren Fadeley play another romantic young couple of the plaza. A couple that may be better-heeled and more conventionally in love, or more willing to express their love in conventional terms, than Kitri and Basilio, who would miss the playfulness if they were as straightforward as Fadeley’s Mercedes and Johnson’s Espada.
Johnson and Fadeley appear in every scene, their dances often a choreographic counterpoint to Pineiro and Diaz’s. Both have bravura moments, Johnson taking the opportunity Corella affords to show his versatility and élan.
Other dancers also have a chance to show their mettle. Ana Calderon and Arian Molina Soca take focus as gypsies and do a marvelously spirited job with their dances. Soca makes an particularly strong impression. He looks to be a dancer Corella can build works around.
In the dream sequence, Kathryn Manger is a wonderfully hoydenish Cupid who darts through sequences with flamboyant humor and non-stop delight. Calderon and Oksana Maslova offset Manger’s friskiness with regal passages as two queens expressing romance.
A wedding scene closes “Don Quixote,” and Corella keeps ideas flowing as he creates more outstanding dances for his corps, and especially Pineiro, Diaz, Johnson, and Fadeley. Neenan, as a wounded, disappointed, and petulant also-ran for Kitri’s hand, has some nice comic moments in this sequence.
Charles Askegard mainly struts in broad strides as Don Quixote, his large steps being more comic than bold. Askegard acquits all that demanded well enough, but you are more anticipatory when his Quixote quits the stage and leaves it to the Ballet ensemble.
“Don Quixote” runs through Sunday, March 13, at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $135 to $29 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1999 or by visiting www.paballet.org.