Shortly before his death 20 years ago Rudolf Nureyev said: “As long as they are putting on ballets my spirit will live on.” His incandescent brilliance was definitely present at the State Theatre for the opening of Don Quixote, the Australian Ballet’s 415th performance of Marius Petipa’s classic.
Choreographed by the master himself, this sensational production had a sell-out audience hollering for more as the troupe took numerous and well-deserved curtain calls, though unsurprisingly (it being Melbourne) they received no standing ovation. Perhaps I needn’t complain too much as it’s a conservative city that doesn’t display over-the-top emotion. But it’s undeniable that even sat on their bums the somewhat resevered crowd had a ripper of an evening.
It wasn’t all politicians and toffs in their finery of course; there was a nice mix of ages and many children, a cool testament to the broad reach of the company’s work in the wider community. They had come to see what is rightly claimed as an Australian classic.
The story is just a soap bubble: Don Quixote daydreams of his ideal love, and in a gesture of courtly devotion decides to go in search of adventure with his nutty sidekick Sancho Panza. On their journey they encounter merry-making townsfolk, star-crossed lovers and errant but ultimately kind gypsies. Predictable chaos and hilarity ensue, interwoven with brilliant dance and truly wonderful music. As the final curtain descends the full company continues to dance frenetically and nobody (tonight) wanted them to stop.
Rudolph Nureyev’s version of the Don brought to life in Adelaide in 1970 thrilled audiences with its colour and gaudy panache. A film of the production (made in a sweltering hangar somewhere in Flemington) helped cement the growing reputation of Australian Ballet with international audiences. The film, lauded as one of the best classical dance films ever made, is a must see for anyone interested in the history of Australian art (despite the quaint bouffant hairdos on some of the male members of the cast).
As Nureyev conceived it, Cervantes’ story is not centred on the Don but on six main characters around him who play off each other in the manner of commedia dell’arte. It was an excellent conceit as it teases virtuoso performances from across the company and demands the multiple strengths of many. Diverting attention from the introspective Don also gives more space for humour, a demanding approach requiring the best mime and acting skills, all of which were on show. Matthew Donnelly playing the foppish Gamache was superbly funny throughout as was Frank Leo as Sancho, especially when being tossed on a blanket high (four metres?) into the air by townsfolk in scene two.
Given the original story was written by a Spaniard, choreographed by a Russian and is set on the Iberian peninsula, why does it feel so quintessentially Australian? It’s more than just the great dancers’ short sojourn in Australia. Nureyev’s Quixote is full of sunniness, humour and optimism. Its jingle-jangle tutus and flagrantly camp costumes pre-date the couture of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, making the film look positively dour by comparison. Add to this Cossack high kicks and flashes of flamingo, it’s finger-clicking good.
On refection I don’t think it was mere serendipity Nureyev chose the Don for the Australian Ballet. He had already staged a version in Vienna, but he had wanted to bring it to Australia before that in 1965. Nureyev’s Don, with it’s carousel of colour, explosive energy, unrelenting good humour and fair-play ending, resonates fundamentally with Australians. If I may make a prediction, it will continue to be popular here well into this century, and beyond.
The Don could be depicted a quasi-tragic figure, a lonely old man with a fantasy of love he never realises (perhaps a mirror to Nureyev’s own fractured love-life?). But even in the most poignant moment of the night (act two, scene two), when Quixote dreams of his love the Duchinea as three spectral beauties and their gorgeous attendants appear as a vision, you feel compassion and a sense of playful irony for Steven Heathcotes’ reserved but very good Don. High-praise must go to Amber Scott who was simply marvelous in this scene as the Dryad Queen; her poise, control and charisma filled the stage in one of the highlights of the evening.
The unquestionable stars though are Daniel Gaudiello as Basillio and Lana Jones as Kitri, who burned so brightly they dazzled with an inexhaustible supply of energy, verve and theatrical wit. Their beautiful presences, supported by the efforts of a truly marvelous cast, glided across the stage effortless and elegant. At one point the lady sitting next to me audible held her breath as Lana expertly threw off what must have been a twodozen or more fouettés, spinning so fast I started to feel dizzy. Her versatility, technical skill and stamina left me gobsmacked, especially when it seemed she did not produce one visible bead of sweat all night. Brava also for consummate acting making the part believable in all its absurdities. The relationship of Basillio and Kitri is the core of this ballet and Daniel and Lana made it feel real somehow transcending the fantastical plot.
The lady to my left (a balletomane for certain) then leaned over and whispered that Daniel and Lana are “together”, which made sense as it is obvious this beautiful couple is deeply in love, trusting each implicitly with the complex and difficult moves demanded of them. With pure masculine power Daniel held Lana aloft with an incredible one arm lift, the apparent ease showing a poise and strength the best athletes in any sport would envy.
After watching this charismatic bello leap gloriously and frequently hang in the air with preternatural grace for what seemed an age tonight, I am convinced there must be a place in theatre or film when he finally hangs up his dance shoes. Gaudiello is not only a true ballet star with a handsome cheeky grin, but he is also a superb mime with great comic timing. Bravo!
The performance ended on a fantastic musical crescendo with the famous Grand Pas de Deux, almost bringing the house down — truly a joy to experience.
There are so many more things I could say about this mesmerising and joyful production. Everything came together perfectly, from the delightful costumes to the colourful sets. The ensemble pieces were a rich tableaux of colour and spectacle. Chengwu Guo as Gypsy boy and Reiko Hombo as Amour both showed rare and delightful charisma, physical charm and character. The child mannequins in the “play within a play” scene in act two also deserve praise.
And music director and chief conductor Nicolette Fraillon and her marvellous orchestra did an absolutely brilliant job with tight direction and pace with a challenging score.
Russian ballet superstars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev from the Mikhailovsky Ballet and American Ballet Theatre are renowned for their interpretation of Basilio and Kitri, and star on the March 16 and 18 performances during the Melbourne season of Don Quixote. YouTube clips show their astonishing technical and artistic mastery and I would love to see them, but for my part I loved our homegrown stars — Gaudiello from Brisbane and Lana Jones from Coffs Harbour.
My companion and I left the theatre in a virtual bubble of joy; we hardly noticed the sheer climb of endless stairs from the theatre to St Kilda Road. The energy and cheeky verve of the show has kept me awake most of the night to write this review. I know that whatever I write is only a thin shard of the actual experience of the brilliant artistry of tonight’s performance. So if you get the chance go to this production and see it for yourself, as I can guarantee you will not regret it.
The details: Don Quixote plays the State Theatre, Arts Centre until March 26 and moves to Sydney for a season on April 5-24. Tickets on the company website.