State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Reviewed Wednesday, March 15
Pure joy! This is the only way to describe the Australian Ballet’s production of Don Quixote. From the moment the curtain opens to lights on the audience is transported to another world. It’s a world of silliness and romance, extravagant (over)acting and truly thrilling feats of classical technique. The ballet moves at a pace and sweeps everyone along.
This version is based on the wonderful 1973 film arranged by Rudolf Nureyev for the AB and shot in a hangar at Essendon airport. It is an iconic ballet film, staring Nureyev as Basilio and the wonderful Lucette Aldous as Kitri. Sir Robert Helpmann plays the Don and is co-director along with Nureyev. Being created by Nureyev, every opportunity is provided for grand, big, flashy and fabulous choreography for the men. Equally, the women are certainly not left to stand around being pretty, and match the fellas with dazzling feats of balletic brilliance.
So how did today’s AB step up to the challenge and fill those very large ballet shoes? Brilliantly. In seeing this production, not only can we appreciate some of the history of Don Q, but also see the evolution of the company in the past 50 years. In 2023 the company is dancing with strength and aplomb, and dancers of all ranks are showing great polish.
Opening night brought the gift of Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in the leading roles. They revelled in their roles as the querulous, flirtatious but adoring lovers. In their many solos and pas de deux, they each exhibited their star quality: light, lithe and abandoned grand jetes, whipped turns and fleet footwork for her, and mighty tours en l’air, jetes en manege and pirouettes a la second for him. They also took on the hammy, larger than life characterisations with glee, modulating into the romantic and the sensual in the moments of pure classicism. The ballet has many cheeky, extravagant "dance battles" where each vies to outdo the other in the spectacle of their solos.
The Don is not the centre of the action, but his journey is threaded through its fabric. On this night Adam Bull performed the role with elegance, and presence, showing vulnerability heavily undercut by a whacky madness. He is in the last few months of his Australian Ballet career at the AB and this seems a fitting farewell gesture. His enormous puppet horse is a lovely comic touch and intensifies the sense of unreality of his quest.
Sancho Panza was danced by Timothy Coleman, who wrung every last comedic drop out of the role, as did Paul Knobloch as the fop Gamache, who (not very convincingly) seeks the hand of Kitri, assisted by Kitri’s father Lorenzo, played by Brett Simon. They were all clearly having immense fun.
Very fine dancing was evident everywhere. Amy Harris made a wonderfully spirited street dancer and Nathan Brook as Espada was slick and immaculate. As Cupid, Yuumi Yumada had the audience giggling delightedly at her ‘kawaii’ – she was a delightful, tiny sprite. All the soloists danced with assurance and style.
Minkus's score is terrifically invigorating and sweeps the ballet along and was played beautifully by Orchestra Victoria conducted by Johnathan Lo. Some of the earlier act one dances were taken at a slightly slower pace than in the film and thus allowed for a more finished feel to some of the leg-shaking revelry of the many ronde de jambe en l’air and temps de fleche, allowing for more pause in the landing.
Moments that will forever stay with me are those fabulously controlled fondue landings of Guo coming out of breathtaking tours. The audience's collective breath was held when Guo held Kondo aloft with one hand in a suspended arabesque lift while the music stopped, waiting on the leisure of the danseur to deliver his ballerina back to terra firma. But there are dozens of high points in this production. If Don Quixote is anything to go by, this 60th anniversary season (celebrated in the 61st year of the Australian Ballet) is going to be a ripper.
– SUSAN BENDALL
‘Don Quixote’ continues to March 25 in Melbourne and then plays in Sydney from April 8 to 25.
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