Ah, Sydney buses. It’s not the first time, by any stretch of the imagination, you’ve made me late, or miss out entirely. The 507 should’ve ensured my arrival at the Sydney Opera House in good time to take my seat for the 429th performance of the Australian Ballet’s Don Quixote in the Joan Sutherland Theatre but, being nigh-on half an hour late meant my partner and I just missed the 10-minute window for latecomers.
By special dispensation, we were surreptitiously escorted to a top-tier box; which might sound prestigious, the kind of spot you might expect to see QE2 rather than li’l’ ol’ me, but, frankly, I don’t know why they were even installed, as the view is so restricted. Still, we were lucky to be seated even there, under the circumstances, and sincere thanks are due to the accommodating staff at the Sydney Opera House for saving us from an even lonelier view, in the foyer, afforded via a television screen.
Marius Petipa’s Don Quixote takes us back, almost to the very beginnings of the Australian Ballet. Founded, in 1962, by J. C. Williamson’s and the (Australian) Elizabethan Theatre Trust, with Dame Peggy Van Praagh appointed artistic director (continuing her tenure from the AB’s predecessor, the Borovansky Ballet, which had been around since 1940 and with a relative of mine, Leon Kellaway, as the first teacher), barely a decade elapsed before the company produced a film of DQ, in association with Nureyev, who directed and performed (as Basilio), alongside Sir Robert Helpmann in the eponymous role, with music by Ludwig Minkus. It’s come to be regarded as the finest classical ballet film ever made, so a precocious initiative paid dividends.
The production we see today is, essentially, Nureyev’s. It’s an appropriate legacy as he loved touring with the AB (he wasn’t the only high-profile guest artist, of course, Dame Margot being another); a tribute to the company, certainly, but especially the uncompromising leadership of Dame Peggy.
So, there’s something fundamental and inextricable about DQ and the AB. John Lanchberry has done a wonders in arranging Minkus’ score. He might’ve been a Ludwig (though also known as Leon Fyodorovich), but hardly as the same universality as, say, Beethoven, even though he probably deserves it. In ballet, however, his compositions are almost ubiquitous. He might’ve been an ustrian who spent a lot of time in Russia, but, for Petipa’s DQ, Minkus delved deep into his Spanish soul. The outcome was so successful it secured his tenure as official ballet composer of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres and an enduring relationship with Petipa.
For mine, Minkus’ DQ is the ballet peer of Bizet’s Carmen; not merely in respect of its Spanishness, but its intrinsic and extrinsic quality. It hardly need be said that music director and chief conductor Nicolette Fraillon leads the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in a characteristically confident way, lushly liberating all its sadness, heartrending sweetness and almost explosive, celebratory movements.
Anne Fraser’s set (at least for the first and last scenes) is a storybook village and, in her rendering, she manages to somehow capture the warmth and spirit of community that comes with it. It has a seductive (to our sense of lost innocence), fairytale appeal that’s in keeping with the Don’s charming delusions of chivalrous grandeur. Barry Kay’s costumes are splendiferous: palettes, by turn, of golds, reds and blues, which waft and float to make lifts and turns all the more elegant. Both these designers are mourned and missed.
It’s a busy life in retirement that Steven Heathcote’s led. Now he’s back as DQ. When you stop to think about it, they’re big shoes to fill: the fact that, in 2002, the Norwegian Book Club (who knew?) declared Miguel de Cervantes’ novel “the best literary work ever written” tends to put some expectations on the character. Happily, Heathcote transpires to be almost as good an actor as dancer which, yes, is saying something. His Alonso Quijano (Quixote’s “real” identity) is something of the “ingenious gentleman” of Cervantes’ full title but, at the same time, we’re aware, always, of his vulnerability, as man more in touch with his own idealised view of the world than the world as it is. And, I suspect, there’s always hint of empathy, too, for who among us would-be sensitive souls doesn’t long, like him, for an awareness of purpose and beauty
Accompanying him on his quest for the romantic holy grail is, of course, Sancho Panza, his equanimity a necessary foil to Quixote’s, well, quixotic nature. Like his master Sancho (played with wide-eyed bemusement by Frank Leo) is slightly buffoonish, but the down-to-earth influence that bridges two worlds: Quixote’s fantastical one, populated by damsels and rescuing knights-errant, and the one apparent to peasants too busy subsisting to indulge such utopian visions. Neither role implicates much in the way of dancing, which is probably just as well for Leo, whose regular occupation is as an artistic administrator (assistant to Fraillon), but both master and servant impress in the dramatic stakes. Heathcote, especially, treads the tragicomic fine line of his role with fine judgment. And there’s something irresistibly appealing about his character’s subconscious decision to view the world only as he would have it. Don Quixote is, in his peculiar and particular way, an idealist, out to save himself, us, and the world at large, from ourselves and itself. Inasmuch as he’s an individual of essentially beneficent inclination, but prone to foibles and failures, he’s every man and woman, so it’s effortless to identify and empathise.
Gary Stocks is dramatically effective, too, as the hard-nosed innkeeper, overprotective of his daughter, Kitri (Lana Jones). Jones and her onstage lover, Basilio (Daniel Gaudiello), a young barber, are, of course the focal point of the entire ballet. Petipa’s choreography couldn’t be more demanding: I can’t imagine being able to smile my way through either of these roles, even if I had the requisite skills. Gaudiello may be stocky and as strong as Atlas, but he’s by no means big, so to virtually levitate the long-legged, willowy Jones above him, while holding only one of her elbows, is almost a circus trick, or feat of outright illusion. The audience, I suspect, collectively and simultaneously drew and held breath, before ooh-ing and ah-ing in appropriate measure. More generally, DQ is as if designed to disarm cynics, elate aficionados and win over those who thought ballet wasn’t for them; full of showy moves, lithe leaps (with perfect perpendicularity), bounds and lifts and tantalising tangos. There’s so much to marvel at that the odd wobble (and it’ll probably take all your focus to find one) is entirely and immediately forgivable.
Other notable performances included, but were not limited to, Ako Kondo and Reiko Hombo, as Kitri’s friends, who were delicate, as light on their feet as fairies at the bottom of your garden and finessed and, perhaps above all, the foppish abfabulousness of Matthew Donnelly (albeit, again, more in the realm of theatrics than dance), as the nobleman Gamache, apparently deluded about his own sexual preferences, given his pursuit of Kitri. In the role, Donnelly has more mince than an abattoir, his red Shirley Temple locks and pantaloons making him a kind of post-medieval Elton.
Notwithstanding the more solemn themes Cervantes originally introduced, Don Quixote, the ballet, emerges as about the most fun a dancer or dance devotee can have with tights on, or admiring them. It’s as light as a feather, in the best possible way, rendering heartfelt smiles and a lingering feeling that all’s well with the world. Or would be if the likes of Kim Jun Il would take a few hours out of his bellicose schedule to see some brilliant ballet.
The details: Don Quixote plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until April 24. Tickets on the company website.