Nearly Lost Masterpiece Settles In
For those of us who hadn’t seen Balanchine’s “Don Quixote” when it was in the repertory of the New York City Ballet in the 1960s and ‘70s, this week was a wonderful opportunity to discover a “new” Balanchine ballet. It’s a very rich, complex work, and it’s not surprising that the opening night performance lacked detail. The ballet had begun to tighten at its second performance Thursday; by the Saturday matinee (the last I saw) it was definitely beginning to jell.
In many ways, Balanchine’s “Don Quixote” is very traditional in language and structure: it tells its story in three acts of classical, demi-caractère and character dancing alternating with processions, court dances and large sections of mime. In other ways, it was a daring experiment, an attempt to deal with serious matters of love and idealism and justice, something that, in 1965, many were insisting ballet was incapable of doing. If "Don Quixote" owes much to Petipa (the choreography's vocabulary is very post-Petipa, of course) there are other predecessors—and successors—as well. The first act, with its lively peasants and small stories told with cinematic brevity, owes something to Bournonville, and perhaps Fokine and Massine. The second act has both thematic and choreographic elements from Balanchine's own “La Sonnambula”. The divertissements in this act are reminiscent of that ballet. The dances are performed by hired entertainers, rather than danced by characters in the ballet, and they’re character vignettes, with undertones of cruelty; the performers know exactly what's going on. There are deeper connections. The Poet and the Don are both outsiders, both mocked and toyed with by tasteless aristocrats, and both dream of an ideal woman. As the Sleepwalker responds to the Poet's touch and intuits what he wants her to do, so did Farrell/Dulcinea respond, fearlessly and exactly, to what Balanchine wanted her to do. Viewing her solo from "Don Quixote" in the film "Elusive Muse," I had the sense that there was a direct connection between Balanchine's imagination and Farrell's body; we were seeing his thoughts transparently through her dancing, and I had the same sense here. Dulcinea is the Don's ideal, and Balanchine's Muse. The third act, especially that final solo, presages "Davidsbundlertanz," and there are thematic ties to that work as well (the black-clad quill critics of the later work are analogs to the Inquisitors in this one).
The second act is a descendant of the ballroom scene in "Swan Lake" as well as "La Sonnambula," though the divertissements are not what one would expect in a Petipa ballet, and many dance lovers this week, as in 1965, one reads, seemed to find them dull. On opening night, these dances had indeed looked very bland. By Saturday afternoon they were worthy of court entertainment, especially the Pas de Deux Mauresque, in which Cheryl Sladkin and Alexander Ritter danced an innocent-seeming mini-ballet of man’s pursuit of woman, and the Ritournel, which Erin Mahoney danced like a demon, limbs flying through choreography that looks contemporary 40 years after its creation. Mahoney was also impressive as the Night Spirit (Dulcinea's antithesis, or perhaps her sister) in Act 3's dream ballet.
Momchil Mladenov danced the role of the poet knight who tilts at windmills and believes in an ideal, if imaginary, woman at every performance—in itself a real feat. Don Quixote is a pure danseur noble role, built on social dancing and mime rather than virtuoso turns, but it’s physically demanding. The Don wears armor throughout, and is constantly beaten and kicked, fights several duels, and spends a good bit of time crawling around on the floor or falling off horses. Mladenov is a young man, and dances the Don with a great deal of dignity. His portrayal was never a caricature, and there’s just enough of a glint of the dancer’s own youth under the gray beard to make a metaphor for the Don’s youthful, idealistic spirit.
The heart of the ballet is the role of Dulcinea, made on Farrell when she was 19. If she’d never danced anything else, she’d make it into the history books for this one. It's an impossible part. Like a star ballerina in a Petipa ballet, Dulcinea reveals a different aspect of her character in every scene, but unlike a Petipa heroine, she doesn’t take command of the stage in variation after difficult variation, fouettéing the Prince into her arms and the competition into submission. Dulcinea is a dream, summoned by the Don’s imagination. She has to walk, with that insinuating lilt that Balanchine would use again for Farrell in “Union Jack,” and give comfort, be vulnerable and untouchable, and, in the final act, absolutely wild, as though her dancing has burst from the Don’s fevered brain. Both Sonia Rodriguez and Heather Ogden are able dancers and outlined the role admirably, but neither could fill it. Balanchine and Nabakov (the composer, and I'll come down firmly on the side that this is a wonderful score for dancing) built each entrance for Dulcinea beautifully; every cue lets the audience know that something wonderful is about to happen. What happens is some very nice dancing, and that's not quite enough.
By Saturday afternoon, Rodriguez (who had seemed very "after Farrell" on opening night), was beginning to find her own way into the role. She has a very flexible body, but a small one, and that works against her. Ogden, making her debut Thursday night, has the advantage of height. Her first performance was understandably tentative, but she danced the role on her own terms. She's a very centered dancer (at least here) in a role that is famously off-center, and this is partly why she seemed more a beautiful young woman than a fantasy.
The corps is hugely important in this ballet, and I can imagine that the work would look more impressive, and more itself, were it danced by a larger company. The stage looks a bit bare at times, although the first act was at least ten times more lively Saturday afternoon than it had been at the opener, and several mime scenes throughout were clearer. The corps is even more important in the court ball than in the beautiful passages of pure dancing in the Don's dream. Is there another scene in all of ballet that portrays hypocrisy and cruelty so ruthlessly? The whole act is a cruel joke at the Don’s expense and the dancers have to convey this while performing court dances. There's an extraordinary little dance for a small group of masked whisperers who swoop down on the ball like vultures, and the Don's final humiliation (a woman smears his face with whipped cream) occurs because he is defenseless through his own courtliness.
The most simple, and extraordinary, scene in the ballet is its last, with a beautiful long, slow procession where knights dip their swords in homage to the dying Don and clerics who have scorned him in life return to bless him on his deathbed. Dulcinea, the Don’s servant girl, closes the window she had opened at the ballet’s beginning and, like Hilda, the Christian girl forced to live among trolls in Bournonville’s “A Folk Tale,” (a ballet Balanchine knew and admired) makes a cross from two sticks and places it on the Don’s chest. It’s a brave and beautiful ending to a brave and beautiful work, and, like many, I’m grateful to Farrell for fighting for it and finding a way to let the light shine again on Balanchine's masterpiece.