The Magazine

Dulcinea en Pointe

Balanchine's Don Quixote gets an elegant revival.

Jul 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 42 • By PIA CATTON
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WHAT A SUMMER OF LOVE this has been. Tom Cruise fell for the nubile actress Katie Holmes, just in time for the premiere of War of the Worlds. Brad Pitt became smitten with his costar Angelina Jolie, conveniently prior to their film Mr. & Mrs. Smith. And in light of such calculated coupling, it's a relief to remember: Love affairs that play out in public were not always timed to the release of blockbuster movies. Once upon a time, such romances inspired the creation of new works of art (rather than just publicity for them). And that was the case with George Balanchine's 1965 ballet Don Quixote, which was revived last month at Washington's Kennedy Center.

At the age of 61, Balanchine created this narrative ballet as an open declaration of his feelings for the 19-year-old dancer Suzanne Farrell. In the early 1960s, Farrell was still in the corps of the New York City Ballet, but she so fully captured the master choreographer's heart and mind that he was inspired to make the full-length ballet for her. With "Don Q," she became known to the world as his muse, the one who would lead him through his later creative years. At the premiere, Balanchine himself performed as the doddering Don, spellbound by his ideal woman, Dulcinea--a role that no one but Suzanne Farrell danced. Until now.

Farrell, 59, is today the artistic director of her own eponymous ballet company and, as such, brought "Don Q" back to the stage this season with a fresh cast and new look. Balanchine had bequeathed the rights to her, so the choice to dust it off was entirely hers. And the time was right: Cervantes's novel, on which the ballet is based, celebrates its 400th anniversary this year. But more important, it has been 25 years since the ballet was last seen, a period that allowed the industry and Farrell enough distance from the original.

Aiding that distance is the fact that this is an entirely new production, created in partnership with the National Ballet of Canada. Ms. Farrell commissioned new sets, costumes, and lighting. She adhered closely to Balanchine's choreography by working from memory and a grainy, straight-shot videotape, but at times had to extrapolate.

The result is a thoroughly engaging ballet that in no way requires knowledge of the real-life back story. Balanchine's "Don Q" is deeply artistic and quite soulful--especially as opposed to Marius Petipa's comic version, which calls for virtuoso splash and a buffoonish Don. In Farrell's hands, Balanchine's "Don Q" is a streamlined story with powerful imagery and well-crafted dances, all of it designed to make you consider the big stuff: love, life, death, and religion.

The ballet opens with a prologue in the score by Nicolas Nabokov, cousin of the novelist. As the sharp, Stravinskyesque music unfolds, Don Quixote, played by Momchil Mladenov, reads in his study. The set, by Zack Brown, creates a dark, spare mood: giant books, some standing, some flat, surround a reading table and chair. When a barefoot servant girl (Sonia Rodriguez) comes to him, he is entranced. She carefully washes his feet--and dries them with her hair. When she leaves, she walks toward one of the giant books. It opens to reveal a staircase flooded with warm light. As she ascends to the light, Dulcinea's musical motif begins--and so does the Don's quest for her. Such compact, emotional stagecraft is rare these days.

As the action gets underway, the Don stumbles about town, trying to do good, but finding his attempts at justice rejected. Mladenov handled the role, which is more acting than dancing, with impressive clarity, if not magnetic gravitas.

In Act One, Rodriguez appears as the pretty shepherdess Marcela. She walks flirtatiously en pointe to the Don, bestows a kiss, then leaves without much ado. Her dancing makes more of an impact later, in a duet, after she rescues him from mockery at a high society ball. The dream sequence in Act Three features more of her, in solos and ensemble dances with the corps.

Suzanne Farrell coached Sonia Rodriguez closely, but wisely; they did not attempt a replication. What we sense, rather than see, in her dancing is the notion of the off-balance abandon that Balanchine created for (and from) Farrell. The legacy is there in the air, lingering like the scent of baked goods that were taken out of the house.

Rodriguez has an attractive sense of control, simultaneously heightened and loosened by this challenging choreography. Her demeanor was just right for the role: charming, understated. Her arms move in smooth, full strokes that made me think of panna, the curvy dollop of whipped cream that is served atop gelato.