Don Quixote Review – The Australian Ballet returns to Nureyev in a sumptuous and exuberant showcase

At first blush, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is an unlikely source for a ballet: its two protagonists are an old man and a burly squire, both comically ill-equipped for the adventures they embark on. There is a sort of rough nobility about them, but it is in direct contrast to their physical abilities. Yet Rudolf Nureyev, one of the most powerful and athletic dancers of all time, turned it into a vehicle for his own prowess.

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He did this largely by ignoring the book, setting aside Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and creating a central pair of lovers who have only the most rudimentary relationship to Cervantes’ novel. (To be fair, Nureyev was only following the example of Marius Petipa, whose choreography helped solidify the young dancer’s international reputation.) Nureyev then famously filmed his work – with the help of Robert Helpmann and the Australian Ballet – in an airport hangar at Essendon in 1973.

The Australian Ballet returned to work, adapting that film version for the stage as a showcase for the company’s progress under the artistic direction of David Hallberg. Which is fitting because it’s a flashy piece, leaning on extensive displays of skill and virtuosity over narrative complexity. In the introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote in 2003, she talks about the novel’s ability to feel tragic in one reading and exhilarating in another; Nureyev won’t let a skerrick of tragedy interfere with his tale, for better or for worse.

The production opens on a false proscenium, which frames a screen showing close-ups of Gustave Doré’s magnificent etchings of the knight errant of La Mancha, on which the credits roll. A frame from the film set lifts up to reveal its exact replica on the stage, a clear nod to the history of production as an artifact of cinema – albeit that to the extent of filmic references. The remainder of the production unfolds as a traditional stage ballet.

A prologue follows which portrays Don Quixote (Adam Bull) enlisting his servant Sancho (Timothy Coleman) on a quest, ostensibly to search the land for people in need, but mainly to stay and watch great dances from the sidelines. Thankfully, no one has to wait long for that. The first act is set in the port of Barcelona, ​​bustling and mercantile, full of pomp and show. It’s electric right from the start.

Leading the charge are Basilio (Chengwu Guo) and Kitri (Ako Kondo), lovers navigating the great cliché of Renaissance storytelling: a gruff father who disapproves of their couple. In this case Lorenzo (Brett Simon) wants his daughter to marry a rich fuck, Gamache (Paul Knobloch), rather than the mischievous man of his dreams. Like Don Quixote and Sancho, these comic villain roles are largely decorative, moving awkwardly around the set but posing no real threat.

Nureyev clearly wants his lovers to shine, and Guo and Kondo rise to the occasion. The choreography in this first act is frenetic and endlessly complicated, but the dancers make it look joyous. Lightning-fast footwork and intricate phrasing give way to dizzying leaps and swoon-worthy dives; the lines and extensions of the dancers here are substantial, yet effortless.

Bodies are brilliantly utilized, either as waves of movement behind the principles or as individuals who shine in their own right. Hallberg’s effort with this aspect of the company is evident throughout; group work achieves the necessary synchronicity without becoming mechanistic or rote.

Where the first act is robust and fiery, the second is more delicate. An extended scene with Don Quixote imagining himself surrounded by nymphs is beautifully body-danced – even if at times it seems perilously close to a geriatric sexual fantasy – and a first pas de deux with Guo and Kondo, she covering herself behind a large piece of cloth, it is luxurious and sensual.

The final act returns to the rhythm of the first, with such an abundance of fouettés and pirouettes, grand jetés and aerial circuits that it borders on the orgiastic. There’s an exuberant body group number in full Spanish dress, and more showmanship virtuosity from the two leads, amidst some amusing theatrical affairs about faked deaths and hasty nuptials. It’s great fun, exuberance underlined by breathtaking precision.

Related: Alessandra Ferri: ‘Dancing with Nureyev, I swear he had an energetic aura around him’

The score by the Viennese composer Ludwig Minkus is wonderfully varied and richly melodic, performed by the Orchestra Victoria under the direction of Jonathan Lo with sensitivity and passion. Richard Roberts’ realization of Barry Kay’s sets is brilliant, brilliantly lit by Jon Buswell. And Kay’s costumes are magnificent: evocative, playful, and beautifully detailed. He makes the vision sumptuous.

Don Quixote is far from being a faithful adaptation of Cervantes’ novel – it lacks the character’s pathos, his wounded dignity – but perhaps that doesn’t really matter. The deluded old man and his windmill-tipping homey companion are mythic figures now, freed from their source material. If Nureyev wanted them idling on the sidelines, silent witnesses to a truly fantastic dance, then who are we to argue?

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