Two years ago we saw the Moscow City Ballet perform Swan Lake, and looking back over the statistics, it’s been a constant source of interest, being my most-read blog post of all time. At the time we really enjoyed their “traditional classical” take on what is probably the most “traditionally classic” ballet of all. The company are performing both Swan Lake and other regular favourite The Nutcracker this week at the Royal and Derngate, but we thought we’d take the opportunity to see something we hadn’t seen before – and for one night only, on Monday, they performed Ludwig Minkus’ Don Quixote; it’s always good to experience new things.
Minkus isn’t a name that instantly comes to mind when you think of Russian classical composers, and I certainly didn’t know the music to this ballet before seeing the performance; but I found it really enjoyable. It’s perfectly suited to balletic movement, being somewhat stately, somewhat reserved, somewhat polite, but also with some upbeat jolly tunes too; making it a wonderful accompaniment to the traditional dance you see on the stage. The Moscow City Ballet orchestra conducted by Igor Shavruk were on excellent form on Monday night and played Minkus’ entertaining score with elegance, style and panache.
We’ve been lucky enough to see a number of touring companies over the years performing ballet and opera but few (if any) maintain such high standards of tradition and production values as the Moscow City Ballet. Not only do we have a talented orchestra to enjoy, but also the sets and the costumes are beautiful and of high quality. The dancers, of course, are graceful and skilful. My only slight quibble, as when we saw Swan Lake two years ago, is that you sense they are just a little under-rehearsed.
The tale of Don Quixote, the ballet, is much shorter and simpler than the tale of Don Quixote, the novel. The ballet is based on just two chapters of the book (I haven’t read it, I’m afraid) and concerns the aforementioned Knight Errant, together with his faithful servant Sancho Panza, chancing upon an innkeeper’s daughter (Kitri) in a village courtyard, together with her lover (Basil), and the foppish nobleman (Gamash) whom her father wants her to marry. Don Quixote mistakes Kitri for his beloved Dulcinea (easy mistake) and dreams of her surrounded by a team of beautiful Dryads (as you do). Basil tricks the innkeeper into blessing his marriage to Kitri by pretending to kill himself (always a good idea), Gamash goes off in a huff and Don Quixote blunders on in search of more hilarious adventures. As you may gather, this is one of those ballets that doesn’t have that much of a plot.
But that doesn’t matter because it’s so entertaining to watch. It’s danced with a great sense of fun and wit, with some good comedy moments, lots of knowing glances between the characters and it’s also good to see that the dancers are genuinely enjoying themselves. The role of Kitri was danced by Ekaterina Odarenko, and she is staggeringly good given the fact that she’s only 18 years old; God only knows how good she’ll be in five years’ time. Immaculate on point, and beautiful in her solo work and also in pas de deux with Talgat Kozhabaev as Basil. A little more mature, he joined the Moscow City Ballet when Miss Odarenko was only five years old! He’s full of character on stage, in fact acting like a right jack the lad much of the time – think Rudolph Nureyev reincarnated as Liverpool comic John Bishop. He did some of those slow elegant walks across the stage to get to where the next dance sequence was to start, as superbly lampooned by the Trocks, but his dancing was very charismatic and entertaining even if he did travel a bit during his fouettés. There was an amusing moment where he threw his guitar into the corps de ballet, but it didn’t quite land where it was expected and thus almost brained the poor chap who was meant to catch it; and the otherwise exquisite pas de deux with Miss Odarenko that cemented their relationship finished with a slip of perilous uncertainty (hence my suspicion of their being under-rehearsed), that could have ended up in A&E if he’d dropped her. But they really were very good together; and the secondary pairing of Mariya Mysheva as the Street Dancer with Kanat Nadyrbek as Espada the Toreador also worked extremely well, both being very talented and highly watchable dancers who didn’t put a foot wrong as far as I could tell.
The comic roles were also very enjoyable. Dmitriy Trukhachev was an amusing but still credible Gamash, posing pretentiously, gently leching after the beautiful girls surrounding him, and nicely overreacting to the trickery that put an end to his betrothal to Kitri. Lorenzo the innkeeper was danced with great gusto and humour by Yaroslav Alekhnovich; and Valerii Kravtsov, as an apparently lame Sancho Panza, turns in some wonderfully tricksy dance steps and laughter-inducing shapes. I remarked on his lively performance in Swan Lake two years ago and said surely he should be promoted to soloist soon – and now I see he has been! Together these dancers performed a charming and memorable pas de trois during the engagement celebrations. The eponymous knight doesn’t have to do much as the action largely revolves around him rather than involving him, but Aleksandr Gavrilov (also credited as Stage Manager) as Don Quixote can wield an obscenely long spear with the best of them.
There’s something so refined and quietly amusing about observing all the traditional Russian ballet etiquette. In a fantasy existence I’d like to be one of those guys who sits at the corner of the stage, watching the action and smiling benevolently at the dancers, and when one of them comes anywhere near they give them a respectful smile and generous wave of recognition as if to say, “keep it up fella, you’re doing great”. If it’s a ballerina, their smile and wave is a little warmer and means more “phwoar, looking gorgeous, honey”. There was a lot of that going on in the final act. That would be a great job. I could do that.
It’s a pleasure to see such a high quality production and committed, skilful dancers. The company’s tour goes on to mid-March, although the only other Don Quixote date left is at Crawley. But it’s well worth catching!