Ratmansky's 'Don Quixote' at PNB is stunning balletic feat

PNB's dancers rise to the challenge posed by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky's world class staging of "Don Quixote."

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz with company dancers in Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote.

PNB's dancers rise to the challenge posed by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky's world class staging of "Don Quixote."

The classical ballet “Don Quixote” is rarely performed in its full-length version outside of Russia, and most Americans, if they know it at all, are probably familiar only with the grand pas de deux that is often performed at galas and other special performances. But Alexei Ratmansky’s new staging of “Don Q” may — should — change all that.

Ratmansky, the hottest ballet choreographer today, has reinvigorated this classic and created a “Don Q” that is towering in every sense, from the massive sets to the vibrant costumes, broad sweep of choreography, and rollicking sense of humor. Ratmansky’s staging of “Don Q” is a perfectly crafted story ballet with a coherent narrative through-line in which every scene moves the story forward, the characters are compelling, and there is an overflowing cornucopia of bravura dancing.

Ratmansky created his “Don Q” for the Dutch National Ballet, where it premiered in 2010 to critical and audience raves. PNB is only the second company in the world to perform it.

The production, on loan from the Dutch company, is the largest PNB has ever mounted, with lavish sets and costumes by the Frenchman Jérôme Kaplan. Kaplan has outdone himself with a dazzling array of atmospheric environments, primary-colored costumes, lots and lots of props, and fanciful special effects like a moonface that smiles. The forest-like set for Quixote’s dream sequence is especially affecting, engulfing the Don and the dryad maidens in swirls of iridescent greenery.

James F. Ingalls lighting is a wonder, bringing out the intensity of Kaplan’s designs and illuminating the changing moods of the various scenes.

Ratmansky had to make some revisions to accommodate PNB’s smaller troupe (the Dutch company has 80 dancers to PNB’s 42 plus four apprentices), but from the DVD of the Dutch production and two live performances at PNB, the differences are not obvious. By fleshing out the official company with students from its professional division, PNB has imbued its “Don Q” with the energy, verve, and flair this production deserves. PNB's dancers, accustomed to the lightning-fast Balanchine style, take to Ratmansky’s breakneck tempo like little kids to candy.

There are many exceptional aspects to this “Don Q," but since this is a story ballet, one must start with the way that Ratmansky makes sense of the story. He has gone back to the libretto Marius Petipa used when creating the ballet in Russia in 1869 and, unlike modern productions, which marginalize the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, integrates them fully into the action.

The main event is still the love story of Kitri and Basilio, but Ratmansky begins the ballet with the complete scene-setting 15-minute prologue (four times as long as in other productions), taking the necessary time to set up Quixote’s madness and his quest for both adventure and his idealized damsel Dulcinea.

The prologue is pure acting. For the Dutch production Ratmansky cast two of Holland’s most famous comic actors in the roles of Don Quixote and his squire. In Seattle, Tom Skerritt and Alan Galli take on the roles at most performances with PNB’s Otto Neubert and Jonathan Porretta filling in at a few of them. Ratmansky directs the roles as actors not dancers and uses their mime and body language in a theatrical, rather than balletic way, making the characters more human and engaging.

Surprisingly, Neubert is the more believable Don. Although Skerritt has unquestioned acting chops honed in film and on TV, on opening night he hadn’t quite mastered the grander scale of live theater. His gesticulations tended to be too small for the cavernous McCaw Hall. In contrast, on Saturday afternoon Neubert, a PNB ballet master who occasionally plays non-dancing roles, achieved just the right scale of grand gesture. Both Galli and Poretta brought an impish humor to the role of Sancho, although Galli played it a little broader, which suited his greater girth.

After the Prologue, the story turns mostly to the love trials of Kitri and Basilio. Kitri wants to marry Basilio, but her father chooses the foppish Gamache instead. After a series of twists and turns, the lovers are finally united in marriage. Ratmansky doesn’t forget the Don and his sidekick, however, and brings them into the narrative at logical points — during a neighborhood gathering, at a road show of travelling actors, and at Kitri and Basilio’s wedding.

As for the choreography, there are no historical records of Petipa’s original nor of the later revisions that Petipa and Alexander Gorsky made, but the steps for Kitri and Basilio have come down through generations of dancers and are essentially the same in all present-day productions. Ratmansky has retained the gravity-defying one-armed lifts, 32 fouettés (whiplike ballerina turns), and dazzling pointe work. At the two performances I saw, both Carla Körbes and Kaori Nakamura tossed off the technical challenges of Kitri’s dances with aplomb.

Each brought a different emotional quality to the character, with Körbes a haughty, elegant Kitri and Nakamura feisty and playful. Both shone in different variations; Körbes was at her flowing, lyrical best in the magical dream sequence and Nakamura breathed fire in the two flashy pas de deux with Basilio.

Basilio’s choreography isn’t quite as daring as Kitri’s (except for the one-armed lifts), but one can’t ignore the rapid-fire pirouettes, testosterone-charged leaps, and sky-high jumps. Both Lucien Postlewaite and Karel Cruz handled the pyrotechnics easily, but even at his dramatic best — and he was that on opening night — Cruz doesn’t quite have Postlewaite’s theatrical flair, making his pairing with Körbes more subdued than the story line requires.

Postlewaite and Nakamura, however, are perfectly matched both technically and dramatically. One never doubted that their Kitri and Basilio were genuinely and passionately in love.

Although Kitri and Basilio are the primary focus of “Don Q,” there are other dazzling roles as well — especially the matador Espada and his ladylove Mercedes. Both require bravura dancing and on Saturday afternoon Seth Orza made for an especially dashing Espada, leading his toreadors through a series of cape-swishing moves that lit up the stage in flashes of yellow, pink, red, and black.

Both Maria Chapman and Lindsi Dec beautifully managed Mercedes’ “dance of the knives,” in which she weaves in and out of a line of knives stuck in the floor, but Dec brought a more intense theatricality to the role and proved herself every bit Orza’s dramatic equal.

Ratmansky has staged “Don Q” almost as a three-ring circus (in the best sense); there is always something happening on stage in addition to the main action. In the background or off to the sides villagers walk back and forth, girls fan themselves, Gamache makes faces, and Quixote reacts to everything going on around him.

At both performances the PNB troupe was as sure-footed as ever in their dancing, with lovely variations by Sara Ricard Orza, Rachel Foster, and Leta Biasucci in particular. But this “Don Q” also requires a great deal of acting from the cast. It was a treat to see PNB’s dancers rise to the occasion, clearly having the time of their lives.

As usual, the PNB Orchestra was in fine form at both performances. Music Director Emil de Cou spent extra time in the dance studio when Ratmansky was in town for rehearsals so that he could understand Ratmansky’s approach to the music. De Cou and the orchestra infuse Ludwig Minkus' score, which includes interpolations from other composers, with the same vitality as the dancing, breathing new life into what should become a first-tier staple of the full-length classical repertoire, not just in Seattle but everywhere.

If you go: Pacific Northwest Ballet, “Don Quixote,” through February 12 at Marion McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets $28-168 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-441-2424), or online at pnb.org.


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