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Another look at Boston Balletís Don Quixote

In the great days of the Imperial Russian ballet, when the audience regularly demanded new sensations, choreographers ranged all over the known and imagined world for their settings. Despite the local color, neither the ballets nor the illustrative music really differed much. They were showcases for classical dancing with folk and comic accents. A stable of composers supplied flavorful scores, and Ludwig Minkus led the pack. Tchaikovsky wrote three ballets, all of which are still in the repertory today. Minkus wrote more than 20, most of which have left no trace.

Don Quixote, which was first created in 1869 by Marius Petipa, has been revisited by many contemporary choreographers and régisseurs hoping to contain its sprawling plot lines without losing any of its virtuosity. Boston Balletís revival of the 1966 Rudolf Nureyev version, which just completed a run at the Wang Theatre, put those æons of Minkus tunes to good use. The production is lively, dancy, and long ó its themes are generic, its eccentricities harmless.

Nureyev saw Cervantesís epic novel as a vehicle for himself. The romance of village barber Basilio and innkeeperís daughter Kitri occupies a small part of the novel, but even Petipa played down the quixotic knight and his hapless retainer, Sancho Panza. You canít expect brilliant dancing from a deranged gent in armor and a bumbling companion. In Nureyevís Don Quixote, they and their delusional quest for perfection get sidelined again and again by exuberant dancing groups and soloists.

The clichéíd plot shows how a sharp-witted girl evades her parentís plan to marry her off to a suitor who's unattractive/old/feeble-minded/fat ó but rich. The lovers get lots of excuses to dance, but thereís an unusual number of other solo dancers to bring new colors to the choreography. The Street Dancer and the torero Espada (Sabi Varga and Sarah Lamb in Saturday nightís cast) have a couple of duets, with cape twirling and passionate backbends. The Gypsy Gitan (Michael Cusumano) leaps with his legs pulled up under him, flings himself into squats.

In the vision scene, where Don Quixote fantasizes Kitri as Dulcinea, his feminine ideal, the Queen of the Dryads (Barbara Kohoutková) and Amour (Misa Kuranaga) perform sparkling variations. Two other sets of demi-soloists head their own group dances: Kitriís friends (Romi Beppu and Alexandra Kochis) and two Gypsy Women (Sarah Edery and Heather Myers). Many of these featured dancers are new to the company, and the whole ensemble looks invigorated, both technically and expressively.

Nureyevís choreography, staged here by Aleth Francillon, was drawn from his desire to put a new spin on familiar vocabulary. It tends to be fussy, with extra steps and decorative leg gestures, but what I liked about the production was the chance to see the company go all-out in a sustained classical idiom. With all this dancing, it doesnít matter that the plot machinery creaks and seems irrelevant.

Viktor Plotnikovís Don Quixote looked especially ineffectual. The other mimes (Gianni Di Marco as Gamache, the foppish suitor; Parren Ballard as Sancho Panza; and Michael Johnson as Kitriís father, Lorenzo) dithered around trying to make some clarity out of devices too complicated for the non-verbal stage. Basilioís faked suicide, a device to extort Lorenzoís permission for a last-wish marriage to Kitri, makes a loopy kind of sense. But why do the villagers throw Sancho in the air? Why does Don Quixote destroy a puppet theater? Why is he interested in Kitri anyway? I know why. But not because the ballet tells me.

The theater was packed Saturday night for Jennifer Gelfandís farewell performance, and the audience gave her a loving sendoff. In fact, I thought the company surpassed itself for her. Her Basilio, Christopher Budzynski, looked unusually elegant and attentive. I thought both of them had tacitly agreed to leave the clowning to the many clownish characters, and they looked unaffected in contrast.

The audience has always felt a special affection for Jennifer Gelfand. Partly itís that sheís a local girl in a company with a big national and international membership. Mostly itís that her dancing is technically terrific and high-spirited. Gelfand dances full-out, always. She takes risks, but she always knows where sheís headed, so her steps are musically clear, her end positions secure and satisfying.

As the whole cast stood behind her after the bows, artistic director Mikko Nissinen introduced a long line of teachers, colleagues, and admirers who presented her with flowers and gifts. I donít know what caused her to retire at the early age of 32, but sheís taking something unique away from the company and from us. This was a tearful and premature exit.

Issue Date: November 7 - 13, 2003
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