For Carlos Acosta, Royal Ballet virtuoso and director/choreographer of the company’s new production of Don Quixote, the strength of the beloved Cervantes tale lies in is its exaggerated tone. “Everything’s over the top and satiric – it’s just wonderful!” he tells dance journalist Gerard Davis.
The picaresque ballet represents Acosta’s directorial debut for The Royal Ballet, and his choice of work is not without its risks: the company has never quite managed to affix Don Q to its repertoire, despite several attempts in recent decades. This time around, however, endurance seems very likely on the cards. Acosta’s take is not without its flaws, but the work as a whole is suffused with spirit and a certain joie de vivre that’s all but synonymous with staying power.
Acosta approaches his modernisation of the classic laterally: rather than reworking the robust, comedic flavor of the original nineteenth-century Petipa production, he adds to it, heaping on strata of embellishment, from ruffles and matador capes to tambourines, sparkles and tabletop dancing. Even the score is inflated, layering re-orchestrations by Martin Yates over Ludwig Minkus’ original harmonies. Acosta’s single restraint, it seems, is evident in the eponymous hidalgo himself (Will Tuckett), who in traditional fashion sticks to miming rather than dancing. The prevailing mood exudes energy, though at times overindulges in caricature.
Take the first act, which is suitably merry but suffers from some cartoonish staging. Under designer Tim Hatley’s direction (he of Shrek the Musical and Spamalot fame), Barcelona is reduced to a smattering of rounded yellow edifices populated by raucous townsfolk dangling from windows and clinging wagons. The panto-heavy choreography – which sees foppish Gamache (Thomas Whitehead) dodder around while Sancho Panza (Michael Stojko) gropes maidens and swings a fish – does little to assuage the gaucheness.
Still, there’s a lot to love about the vivacious mood, and the talent on display is first-rate. Roberta Marquez’s Kitri is nimble and efficient, so light on her feet that she lands her grand jetés very nearly silently; likewise Alexander Campbell offers a superb turn as Basilio, an impish grin accompanying each round of faultless pirouettes. Their extroverted performance, with its emphasis on elevation and upright postures, embodies the quintessentially classical style on which the company has built its name.
The mise en scene takes a turn for the better in the second act, which hosts bold and phantasmagorical décor that that calls to mind Tim Burton, what with the abundance of spindly tree trunks, titanic fuchsia blooms and spectral sea foam lighting. Though a jumbo windmill proved unwieldy enough to beget an unexpected break for “technical difficulties” during Saturday’s performance, the interruption failed to detract from the magic of a spirited gypsy jig and an ethereal dream sequence. A concomitant series of solos, ranging from dexterous to languid, showcases some of the performance’s best choreography: glissades, tour jetés and lingering arabesques abound. A fiery flamenco by Ryoichi Hirano, a stylish Espada if ever there were one, also features.
The final act ushers us briefly into a tavern for Basilio’s suicidal ruse (more goofy than melodramatic) before whisking us back to town for a cheerful wedding waltz and coda culminating in a burst of confetti. The show closes with Don Quixote galumphing off into the sunset, but all signs point to the chivalrous knight-errant returning to The Royal Ballet stage in no time.