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Flash Review 2, 6-10: The Bolshoi Lives
The Russians Bring 'Don Q' into the 21st Century

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 Asimina Chremos

CHICAGO -- I am left with a sense of contentment and satisfaction after seeing the Bolshoi's "Don Quixote" with Nina Ananiashvili as Kitri, last night at the Auditorium Theater. I'm left in a pleasant, relaxed, almost non-verbal state... and now I must write about this lovely experience! The whole performance was joyful, vital, and vivacious. Impeccably danced, lavish, and tastefully appointed with elegant stage design and costumes; this production was a living jewel. I have never seen the Bolshoi live before, and I was struck with how sweetly non-ironic yet non-musty and historical the dancers were in their performing. The Bolshoi production, staged by current ballet director Alexei Fedeyechev, dates to the 1869 Petipa original, but these 21st century dancers own this work. It is part of the venerable history of their company, and they bring it into the year 2000 with conviction, charm and grace. In their dancing, this odd take on a classic tale, with more than a bit of Spanish ethnic stereotyping, lives, breathes, and has a heart.

I often feel when I see American productions of full-length classics, that we dancers here don't have the training, the submission to discipline, or the mindset to pull off these ballets with sincerity. Next to the Bolshoi, the Joffrey dancers look modern, individualistic, casual, knowing. I think of that "character dance" Russianized-faux-Spanish hand-on-hip arm position that is all over "Paquita" and Don Q: it's hard to get a bunch of American dancers to pull that off without looking a little elbowy and sarcastic.

When Nina Ananiashvili puts her neatly flexed hand to her hip right where her tutu meets her bodice, with her elbow pointing out to the side, her upper chest arches out just a little and her chin lifts just a tad, her eyelashes lowering just slightly... Heart and pride expanding with wit and fun. No matter what sort of Soviet hell the Bolshoi dancers may have gone through, or are still experiencing versions of, they each and every one bring a marvelous innocence that makes everything believably joyous and celebratory.

For me, the big appeal of Don Q is that it is a comedy and that it has lots of dancing and action. Perhaps it is also the comic aspect of this ballet that keeps it fresh, delightful, and tasty to a contemporary audience. I loved it. The ballet manages to encompass high camp, dark gypsy drama, and breathtaking virtuosity with taste and style. There are fake guitars, beaded costumes, swirling capes, sinuous extreme backbends, drawn-on curls, impossible balances, heart-stopping jumps, a corps of white mantillas and white men's tights accented with black lace, a life-size stuffed Don Quixote facsimile tossed high in the air in violent accident from a windmill spoke, tambourines, castanets, body makeup to make the pale Russians look more tan.... Many of these things would be difficult for me to accept as part of a serious, dramatic ballet. In Act One, when the people in the Town Square throw a flailing Sancho Panza high in the air repeatedly, a woman near me laughed in delight. Responding to the men's jumps, another seatmate exclaimed "wow!" repeatedly.

My very first response was to the spirit of animation onstage as Don Q (an amazingly long and thin Alexei Loparevich), and his paunchy sidekick Sancho Panza (Alexander Petukhov) clowned about in the opening scene. Their broad gestures were so cleverly timed to Minkus's lighthearted score that I was reminded of how much I love vintage Looney Tunes cartoons, and how great it is to see those sorts of things live. An over-the-top memorable moment was the stunningly siren-like and absolutely fabulously haughty and gorgeous Maria Aleksandrova as the Street Dancer! She held up her long black skirt to show off her feet while doing bourees around rows of up-pointed daggers that had been placed on the stage by a male corps of Toreadors. Then there was the positively sensual, yearning, pouting, wild Gypsy solo performed by Anna Antropova. Like the bastard daughter of Isadora Duncan and one of the Furies, Antropova tore up the stage.

Of course Ananiashvili and her partner, Andrei Uvarov (as Basil), were amazing. Nina Ananiashvili is the paragon of the Bolshoi's excellence, joy, and ease. She entered the stage just as happy as could be, taking the stage with confidence and elan. Uvarov is very likable and his legs cut through space like swords. He doesn't have the ego of his partner; Uvarov is more understated and given to show his effort or concentration in non-performative facial expressions. But he still rocks. Ananiashvili nailed her balances in the big famous pas de deux, and her pleasure was radiant. As Uvarov finished his circle of wow-ing jetes, the audience burst into applause which continued into Ananiasvili's fouettes, and I could see her reveling in the energy of the audience's reaction, feeding off of it and glowing. Ananiashvili performs her turns at a reckless speed, fiery and explosive.

My only moments of boredom or disappointment were during the Dream Sequence, where Don Q sees Dulcinea/Kitri surrounded by nymphs and Cupid. I found the oom-pa-pa music for the corps de ballet to be decidedly un-dreamy, and many of the variations for soloists were familiar from Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty." I don't quite know the history of how this scene has come to be staged this way, but it is not very enchanting, except for those fabulous dinner plate tutus in white with various blushes of pink, orange, yellow, green, and blue. Nina Kaptsova as Cupid, with her little golden arrow and cute little overbite, was beyond charming, and very musical despite it.

Also, what this staging does not do is bring any depth to Don Quixote's character. His sense of "noble indignation" at Kitri's father for prohibiting her marriage to Basil, his jousting at windmills, seems like it's all just some dramatic business to get to the dancing. But I can't say I missed having my quotient of deep thoughts, nostalgia, and old man's beautiful delusions. I just enjoyed those youngsters kicking around so fine.

Bravo to the Bolshoi for over 200 years of living, breathing, sparkling ballet with heart.

Editor's Note: The Bolshoi Ballet concludes its Chicago run tonight, then moves on to Seattle (June 14-18), Los Angeles (June 21-25), the Orange County Performing Arts Center (June 27-July 2) and, with a different program, the New York State Theater (July 18-23). For our Flash Review of the Bolshoi's "Romeo & Juliet," see Flash Review 1, 5-31, The Return of the Bolshoi.

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