Joffrey goes pointe-ing at windmills with ‘Don Quixote’

October 6, 2011
Chicago Sun Times
Hedy Weiss

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THE JOFFREY BALLET IN ‘DON QUIXOTE’

When: Wednesday through Oct. 23

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress

Tickets: $25-$149

Info: (800) 982-2787; joffrey.org/donquixote



Solid as a brick yet graceful, Yuri Possokhov, dressed in sweats, might easily be mistaken for a former member of the Soviet Olympic weightlifting team. But chat with Joffrey Ballet dancer Temur Suluashvili, and he will recall how the Bolshoi Ballet would visit his childhood home of Tbilisi, Georgia, and he would rush to the theater to see Possokhov dance.

“He was amazing, so powerful” said Suluashvili.

Possokhov spent 10 years dancing with the Bolshoi before joining the Royal Danish Ballet as a principal dancer in 1992, and two years later becoming a principal with the San Francisco Ballet. He gave his last performance with that company in 2006, but he did not leave the theater. In fact, he already had begun to forge a formidable second career as a choreographer, creating a slew of acclaimed original works for the enormous San Francisco company where he serves as choreographer-in-residence, and reimagining the full-length classics that were such a crucial part of his Bolshoi past.

Last spring, Possokhov created “Bells,” his first work for the Joffrey, set to the music of Rachmaninoff. Now he has returned to craft his own version of the full-length story ballet “Don Quixote,” a work inspired by the Cervantes classic.
The $1.8 million production — featuring the full company of 42 dancers, 10 trainees and the Chicago Sinfonietta — debuts Wednesday at the Auditorium Theatre.

Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, and set to the music of Ludwig Minkus, “Don Quixote” first was presented by the Ballet of the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow in 1869 and reworked several decades later. All modern versions have their roots in those early versions, including the recent San Fancisco Ballet production that was a collaboration between its artistic director, Helgi Tomasson, and Possokhov.

“Frankly, when Ashley [Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey] asked me to do my own, specially designed version for the Joffrey, I wasn’t so excited,” Possokhov confessed. “But I’ve completely changed my mind. I could be much freer this time — not under the control of my boss. And it was a real challenge, because I wanted to make the whole thing shorter, and with much more of a sense of mobility, turning a three-act ballet into a two-act ballet, and making the story clearer.”

Possokhov also has focused his version more on the perspective of Don Quixote — that bookish gentleman of La Mancha, Spain, who is so beguiled by the chivalric code of knights-errant that their world becomes more real to him than reality itself. And while he has cut the ballet’s gypsy dancing scenes (though he knows they are popular with audiences), he has saved all the Spanish flair, complete with the flashing capes of matadors and the flicking fans of their female admirers.

“I’ve sharpened the focus of the dream sequences and the taverna scenes where much of the story happens,” said Possokhov.

The story begins as Don Quixote gets a shave from Basilio, the rakish young village barber, before retreating to his beloved books and drifting off into a fantasy world. Awakened by the comic exploits of Sancho Panza, a mischievous local peasant wielding a stolen ham, he convinces the man to be his squire. And along with his ragged horse (a lifesize figure created by Chicago-based VonOrthal Puppets, and set into motion by two dancers), the two men head off in search of adventure and romance.

As they pass through the village, Kitri, the inn-keeper’s beautiful daughter, is being pursued by Basilio, but her father is trying to wed her to a foppish rich man. The deluded Don Quixote mistakes Kitri for Dulcinea, the woman of his dreams, and also comes to the rescue of Sancho Panza, who has been badly teased by the townspeople.

Later, in the fields of La Mancha, the Don spots windmills, mistakes them for monsters and dragons, and is wounded in his attempt to slay them. Back home in bed, he suffers from more delusions and imagines he is being led into a world of apparitions where he has a vision of Kitri as Dulcinea. Healed by this dream, the Don heads back into village society and unwittingly helps Basilio and Kitri override her father’s plans. Finally, the ideal wedding takes place, with the Don and Sancho as party guests.

“I danced many parts in this ballet with the Bolshoi, but never Basilio, because that was just not me,” said Possokhov. “But I’ve loved the story from childhood. And for the Joffrey I very much wanted to bring back the simpler and more exciting storytelling, though not the real horse they used at the Bolshoi — too messy.

“The dancing style is heavy Moscow school — tricky, and with a lot of jumping and turning — and I’m working on that with these dancers who come from so many different schools. But I think this ballet suits the Joffrey very well. The dancers have such nice technique and can be so entertaining. And there is a lot of character work in this ballet, which requires a very different rhythm from classical ballet, and I think this helps dancers when they do contemporary choreography, too.”

Much of that character work involves Don Quixote, whom Possokhov envisions as something other than the usual “old cuckoo.” (He will be performed in rotation by Fabrice Calmels, Dylan Gutierrez and Jack Thorpe-Baker.)

“I see him as a very intelligent and still attractive old man,” said the choreographer. “The dancers playing him will not have a wig. I want him to be more natural, not look like a doll, and the movement should spark the audience’s imagination. For me, Don Quixote is a real person, a romantic with a big heart.”

Alternating in the role of Kitri will be Victoria Jaiani, Yumelia Garcia, April Daly and Christine Rocas, with guest dancer Carlos Quenedit, Temur Suluashvili, Ogulcan Borova and Gutierrez as Basilio. Dancing Sancho Panza will be Derrick Agnoletti and Graham Maverick.

Though Possokhov admitted he has never been a big fan of projections as scenic design for stage productions, he is making them part of his “Don Quixote.”

“Now they are on a whole different level, and they are used in the grandest opera productions,” said Possokhov, who is teaming up with Wendall K. Harrington, whose innovative work in the field has been seen from Broadway to rock concerts. “This is the 21st century and it’s time to change.”