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Flash Review, 10-9: Tilting at Petipa
Tulsa Solves the Quixote Caper

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2008 Alicia Chesser
Photography by Christopher Jean-Richard

TULSA -- Tulsa Ballet's repertoire is so charged with contemporary works that the appearance of a classical warhorse like "Don Quixote" in the season arouses excitement, but also a touch of apprehension. After traveling so deep into modern ballet's dusky domain, with works like Nacho Duato's "Without Words" and Stanton Welch's "Bruiser," can the company still find life in the bright world of Spain a la Marius Petipa? Does that world even have life left that's worth pursuing? Or have we simply moved beyond the Don and Dulcinea? In the case of TB's production of "Don Quixote," seen at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center September 19 and 20, the company was able to find that there's still a "there" there -- and it proved to be much more than just a test of fouettes.

It may be a warhorse, but "Don Quixote" often seems like the little brother of the big nineteenth-century ballets. Its comedy (Basilio's courtship of Kitri) bears almost all the ballet's weight; its tragedy (Don Quixote's search for Dulcinea) has little heft. Its story of Kitri growing from a girl into a woman relies almost completely upon the skill of the ballerina to suggest the character's evolution through her carriage. Its sweet, delightful Dryad scene in Act II (the pause that refreshes!) stands leagues apart in effect from the ghostly terrors of "Giselle"'s Wilis or the breathtaking chill of "La Bayadere"'s Shades. Those ballets are epics; "Don Quixote" is a caper. It's a caper, however, that is full of hidden pitfalls. The many character dance passages -- for the Don himself, Sancho Panza, Kitri's father Lorenzo, the matadors in Act I, gypsies in Act II, the fandango dancers in Act III, and of course for Kitri and Basilio -- challenge the dancers to spin out a narrative and to project a personality to the audience in ways that are engagingly true to life (rather than corny, overblown, or simply flat). The bravura choreography almost never ceases, demanding that the dancers pace themselves while pushing their technical skill to the limit. The ballet's surprisingly tender theme -- the pursuit of love -- can easily get lost amid the acting and the leaping. "Don Quixote" may not be the artistic equal of its siblings in the Petipa family, but it provides every opportunity for a company to demonstrate its seriousness about the many forms of classical dance expression.

Tulsa Ballet's "Don Quixote," in a clear, clean, dynamic staging by Anna-Marie Holmes (with the assistance of TB ballet mistresses Susan Frei and Daniela Buson), brings all these elements together into a well-rounded whole. In 2000, when Holmes was serving as the artistic director of Boston Ballet, she received a call from the Harvard Library, offering her the chance to view a collection of notes Nicholas Sergeyev made when he was working with Petipa. Sergeyev took his notes with him when he left Russia in 1917, and they made their way to Harvard, where Holmes set to work to decipher and interpret them. An expert in 19th-century ballet who studied extensively with Sergeyev's wife Natalia Dudinskaya at the Kirov in the 1960s, she told the Tulsa World that "what these notes gave me... was a better understanding of the patterns Petipa wanted to create on the stage... He would use buttons and arrange them on a table, when he was figuring out his choreography, and I did the same thing. Of course, I'd put a sequin on the button for the ballerina. Video is a marvelous tool, but it often can't give you a good sense of depth, and you run the risk of the ballet looking flat. But following Petipa's notes -- and using the buttons -- I was able to get that sense of depth."

Ma Cong and Alexandra Bergman of Tulsa Ballet in "Don Quixote." Photo by and copyright Christopher Jean-Richard.

Indeed, this "Don Quixote" does have a depth -- both visual and emotional -- that is too often absent in this hurly-burly ballet. Little details (like Basilio seizing Kitri's fan for a moment in Act 1, joking but in rapture too) are allowed to bloom in the middle of a bustling crowd. Dances for the soloists weave into the existing stage action, focusing and advancing rather than interrupting it. An example: when the street-dancer Mercedes emerges from the crowd to dance with Espada and the matadors in Act I, one does not wonder, "Who are these people and why are they doing this dance?" but rather exclaims, "What a town to have such couples in it! No wonder Kitri and Basilio throw off such sparks together." Their dance tells us more about who the main characters are, where they come from, and what sort of people they live amongst. The Act II dance of the Dryads has been staged with similar richness, with gold-clad women flowing back and forth like silkies in the sea. A moment of real magic occurs at the end of that dance when Dulcinea, the Dryad Queen, and Amour (or Cupid) swirl around each other in shimmering bourrees while Don Quixote walks backwards in a reverie. Their swirling, against the stillness of the corps, signals the fading of his dream.

Act III is pure invigoration, beginning with a flamenco-inspired dance for the matadors at the tavern, choreographed by Holmes to bring in some manly excitement after the woman's world of Act II and to prime the audience for the thrills of Act III's grand pas de deux. The dance starts slowly, with ten men in three-quarter profile each stamping one foot softly to syncopated hand-claps from the orchestra and a dancer at the downstage wing pounding a tall stick against the stage, then accelerates into a tense whirl of black-clad, arching bodies. At first glance this passage is not the slightest bit in keeping with the tone of the ballet; it has a very modern feel, suspenseful and dark. But it does bring forward the vivid darkness in two other dances, the Mercedes/Espada duet in Act I and the fierce fandango in Act III, with its almost terrifying evocation of 19th-century Spain: high white ruffled collars, black, red, and gold brocades, and toes punching into the floor as arms arc sharply overhead. And it made the audience go wild. The finale of Act III is, of course, a truly grand affair, with its passionate, high-flying pas de deux and its rambunctious closing dance in which the whole company celebrates the consummation of Kitri and Basilio's love.

Of course, staging alone cannot make a company achieve what Tulsa Ballet has achieved in this production. Without energy, technical strength, and emotional engagement, even the best-staged ballet won't work. The Tulsa Ballet dancers have the first two qualities in spades; the third could be the focus of more attention. The September 19 cast featured Karina Gonzalez as Kitri and Alfonso Martin as Basilio; on September 20 Wang Yi danced Basilio and guest artist Michele Wiles of American Ballet Theatre, Kitri. (Wiles stepped in a mere two-and-a-half weeks before the ballet's opening, filling in for the injured Soo Youn Cho.) Martin's Basilio is vigorous, fun-loving, and confident, the quintessential Spanish scallywag. I would have loved to see him a little less confident -- in other words, more in awe of the woman he so vigorously pursues. Basilio has a lot to learn from Kitri. I'm thinking especially of her gentleness with Don Quixote in Act 1; Basilio doesn't get him, but just wants to get the old-fashioned promenade over with and get on with courting his girl. It's not a terribly rich part, to be sure, but richness can be found in it, perhaps by emphasizing the ways Kitri, surprising him at several moments, takes him out of his jokey, sexy comfort zone. Martin is a modest dancer who does not announce to the audience how good he is (because he does not need to). As a result, his performances in these virtuoso roles almost always shine. I want to see them smolder. Yi is immensely gifted, with a sophisticated and cool demeanor, but in this role he roughed it up a bit, adding wildly twisting leaps and finishes to his solos that, if they didn't always look attractive, at least got the message through that here was a man worthy of Kitri's attentions. He shares a sort of self-contained quality with Martin (and, at times, with Alexandra Bergman), and though I'm reluctant to urge any dancer to "work the audience," they (and we) would benefit from working to project beyond themselves, to avoid the assumption that they are conveying meaning simply by appearing on stage with excellent technique and performing their steps.

With her sharp, slim body and knife-edge clean lines, Gonzalez was an elegant yet somewhat remote Kitri. In the five years I've been watching her, she has transformed herself: no longer just a nimble girl with a pair of long legs, she is now a sleek, womanly powerhouse. She has tamed an overflexible upper body and a wobbly head; she has strengthened those legs and purified her technique such that not even in the most difficult passages can one find her with an unpointed toe or an unstretched finger. Gonzalez has reached the stage in her development where, after years of physical self-discipline, she can begin to turn her attention inward. Her pristine vessel is ready to be filled: with emotion, with ideas, with herself. I want to see Gonzalez herself on stage, to feel her inhabiting her roles -- not just showing what she thinks it's important to show. Now is the moment when I want to know: how does she feel? what does she think? She is still very young, but she is ready to grow in this way. Here's why I think so. A cell phone rang in the audience at the very beginning of her solo in the grand pas de deux. The orchestra flubbed its opening notes and had trouble getting back on track. Gonzalez looked a little shaken, but she carried on calmly and did each step just so. Suddenly, near the end of the solo, she hit a huge balance -- and suddenly, with her confidence switched on, she catapulted that solo and the entire pas de deux from flat to fascinating in mere seconds. Her face grew lively, her arabesques shot through with energy. That moment of confidence made her, all of a sudden, a believable, vivacious, fascinating Kitri and not just a gorgeous young ballerina. This is the sort of performance of which Gonzalez is capable. Now it remains for her to make it happen whether or not the balance is a big one.

Guest principal dancer Michelle Wiles of American Ballet Theatre in Tulsa Ballet's "Don Quixote." Photo by and copyright Christopher Jean-Richard.

These reflections on Gonzalez hit me on September 19; after seeing Wiles on the 20th, they were strongly confirmed. If the former's Kitri was a hummingbird, the latter's was a falcon. Friday was "doing"; Saturday was "dancing." Wiles is a creature of the theater, a born actress, a Judy Garland of ballet who can project to the cheap seats with the smallest tilt of her head. Her time at ABT has encouraged in her the investment of personality into dancing that can be summed up in one word: "presence." Her first moment onstage in "Don Quixote" exemplified this quality. Whereas Gonzalez, appearing to Sarkis Kaltakchian's careworn Don as Dulcinea, fluttered her arms slowly, Odette-like, as she stood behind the scrim, Wiles made out of both arms a gesture of beckoning, calling him to her, collecting him into her embrace. In Gonzalez's case, Dulcinea was a beautiful woman; with Wiles, she was Don Quixote's salvation. All of that was conveyed by what might seem a minor difference in the use of port de bras, but is actually a critical matter of understanding that every single thing one does with one's body counts as part of the whole -- that it is not meant only to be beautiful, but to have and express a meaning. Wiles used her skirt, her smile, her eyes, and her creamy broad shoulders, as well as her huge coltish leap and tornadic pirouettes. She luxuriantly caressed Basilio's guitar as she played it for her friends. As she danced ever so gently with the courtly Don Quixote, her girlish exuberance mellowed into tender curiosity and respect as she gazed upon his haggard face. Then she closed her eyes in sweet pleasure as he kissed her hand, as if for a moment she really had become Dulcinea, with a new world opening to her. Wiles's acting in Basilio's "death" scene was masterful; she responded to his practical joke not with predictable fake surprise but rather with a deep, loving irony. She smiled widely as he "died," and when she folded her hands and rolled her eyes to heaven as the townspeople bustled in a panic, you could almost hear her praying, "Dear God, please save my darling Basilio, the poor adorable goof...." Wiles suffers from occasionally distracting technical flaws (poor turnout, flyaway feet, lifeless forearms), but in this role she was glorious to watch.

Music director Nathan Fifield conducted the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra with high style both evenings, his choice of tempos well-suited to the different casts: Friday's was quick and crisp, Saturday's more languid and rich. Thomas Boyd's sets and Judanna Lynn's costumes, on loan from Houston Ballet, enlivened the ballet with rich colors and textures: plum and gold, bright sky and dim tavern, black lace and tattery patchwork.

Sarkis Kaltakchian of Tulsa Ballet in "Don Quixote." Photo by and copyright Christopher Jean-Richard.

But to return to the dancing: In the past four years I've used words like "bold" and "ambitious" to describe what this company, from the corps to the soloists, is achieving under the direction of Marcello Angelini. In looking at the corps in these performances, another term came to the forefront: hard-working. Not the sort of "hard-working" applied to the Most Improved Student, or the puppy who is doing so well in obedience school. Rather, the sort of hard work done by people who know they are good, who are on their game, and who, exhilarated by the fruits of their talent and their labor, decide to push themselves further. Never since the days when Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin directed the company has its epaulement been so precise and expressive. (During TB's tour in South Korea in August, Angelini noted that he wanted to work on it, and he clearly has.) Notable here were Ashley Blade-Martin and Kate Oderkirk, who moved as one with sumptuous lines, their upper bodies wringing everything out of the music as the Friends of Kitri in Act I. And never since those days has the company's character dancing been so exciting. Daniel McGeehan's portrayal of Kitri's father Lorenzo -- full of tenderness and authority -- brought me back wistfully to the great character performances Matthew Bridwell delivered here in the 1980s and '90s. Kaltakchian brought a gentle nobility to the role of Don Quixote, a nobiliity sustained even in his fits of madness. Alberto Montesso was a Sancho Panza with a complete, distinct personality -- proud, but willing to serve, with a shambling Tony Soprano swagger -- and Ricardo Graziano was a thoroughly befuddled fop as Gamache. (Mikhail Ovcharov and Ke Da were less effective in those roles on the 20th, but they demonstrated a similar infusion of thought and wit.) Ma Cong's Espada was a fierce fighter, his face thrust forward toward his partner and toward us. Bergman and Oderkirk both excelled as the lead Fandango dancer in Act III. Oderkirk in particular, dancing with Graziano, seized upon the blood-red quality in this dance, the macabre bowing towards death: as she bent backwards at its finish, she slowly unfurled her long fingers like a witch. Mugen Kazama led the Gypsy dance with his hands stretched wide as he sliced through the air in dizzying circles. Hanae Seki, clad in a simple white tunic as Amour, was at once a sprite from the mythic stratosphere and a potent feminine force in the Balanchine vein. With its pearl-like chaine turns and subtle arabesques, perhaps no other performance in this weekend was as enjoyable as hers for its perfectly pure Petipa style. The invaluable Joshua Trader continues to be an anchor for the TB men, fully invested in every movement at every moment.

Tulsa Ballet returns to the Tulsa Performing Arts Center in a month's time with a program featuring "something completely different": Paul Taylor's "Black Tuesday," Nacho Duato's "Gnawa," and Jiri Kylian's "Petite Mort." I hope the company carries some of this unmodern "Don Quixote" -- its wit, its fire, the humanity within its virtuosity -- into these modern ballets. A century after his death, it's Petipa after all who continues to issue the ultimate challenge to the dancer: through this art, show us life, and make magic.

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