Don Quixote’s Flights of Imagination

October 12, 2011
Lucia Mauro


Despite Don Quixote’s infectiously lighthearted tone, expect to ponder a substantial helping of source material. The Joffrey Ballet’s new production, reimagined by former Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer Yuri Possokhov, runs Oct. 12-23 at the Auditorium Theatre. It references the original Miguel de Cervantes two-volume novel; a series of impressionable etchings; and cinematic technique – not to mention one of the more popular versions of the ballet by Marius Petipa for the Bolshoi in 1869. This year, two drastically different versions of Don Quixote figuratively gallop (one already galloped) across the Auditorium stage. In the spring, Boris Eifman’s radically psychological interpretation, subtitled Fantasies of a Mad Man, placed the titular knight-errant in a psychiatric ward where his ability to dream was clearly stifled.

We’ll discuss both the Joffrey Ballet and Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg. But, first, a little history.

Even before virtuoso choreographer Petipa set a story from Cervantes’ 1615 Book Two to dance, earlier ballet masters – from Franz Hilverding to John Georges Noverre -- found Don Quixote an inherently balletic subject. Yet, throughout the full-length narrative ballet’s evolution, the Don himself has served as a rather bumbling framing device for the more elaborate plot of the beautiful Kitri’s love affair with poor barber Basilio against her father’s wishes. With the exception of George Balanchine’s Don-centric 1965 production (which paired the choreographer with his own personal Dulcinea Suzanne Farrell), the ballet has traditionally reveled in the perils and joys of thwarted Spanish lovers awash in a pseudo-Iberian pastiche of swirling matador capes and fluttering fans – all set to the buoyant Ludwig Minkus score.

 In Eifman’s staging, Don Quixote escapes his emotional torment by pretending to live among the villagers celebrating the wedding of Kitri and Basilio. His aesthetic fuses extreme ballet with avant-garde ideas. And when viewing Eifman’s often interior, non-literal work, it’s important to keep in mind that he frequently zeroes in on themes of artistic freedom that reference his own struggles as a ballet iconoclast during the Soviet era. Eifman’s Act One dancing mental patients could have crossed into the realm of parody or, worse, mockery. But, instead, they were sympathetic and believable. Act Two, nevertheless, appeared disconnected in the sense that it mainly recreated, with a few twists and turns, the last act of the familiar ballet.

The Joffrey’s pared-down, two-act production aims to stay true to the characters and structure of the Petipa blueprint; only the emphasis has shifted back to the Don. Here he is a stronger through-line, together with sidekick Sancho Panza and the protagonist’s scrawny horse Rocinante, an endearing life-size puppet created by Cynthia Von Orthal. The only vague similarity to Eifman is the desire to get inside Don Quixote’s head. In the novel, he is inspired to embark on a string of misadventures after consuming hefty servings of chivalric romances. The windmill-tilting knight places himself in the service of his imagined unattainable lady, the Dulcinea.

Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s artistic director, cites French artist Gustave Doré as a key inspiration. Doré, known for his wood- and steel-engraving, most famously illustrated Cervantes’ novel in the 1860s. These witty and fastidiously detailed black-and-white etchings have served as the visual soul of Don Quixote. One in particular portrays the Don as an older gentleman reading while being engulfed by clusters of fantastical literary characters. That singular image best sums up the Joffrey’s presentation, especially in terms of Wendell Harrington’s filmic-illusionistic projections that blur the line between fantasy and reality. Is this Don Quixote the Doré drawings come to life, or are we witnessing the fertile mental wanderings of Cervantes’ idealistic man from La Mancha? Most likely, we’re experiencing something more potent: the enduring power of the imagination.