We balletomanes don’t drink Champagne out of our favorite stars’ pointe shoes anymore, and maybe that’s a shame. If ever a performance warranted such tribute, it came at the last evening of San Francisco Ballet’s “Don Quixote,” with Mathilde Froustey and Angelo Greco. In nearly 20 years of watching this company, Saturday ranked as one of its greatest nights, the kind that makes instant converts of newcomers and re-inspires diehards—the kind dancers and their fans alike live for.
SF Ballet stars past have left high standards in “Don Q.,” most memorably Cubans Lorena Feijoo and Joan Boada when this production premiered here in 2003. They—and now Froustey and Greco—made the most of a well-built Petipa-engineered vehicle. Based on then-principal dancer Yuri Posskhov’s memory of the 1900 Alexander Gorsky production at Possokhov’s native Bolshoi Ballet, this staging in collaboration with SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson never flags, the pas d’action for young lovers Kitri and Basilio leading seamlessly to ensemble dances that don’t overstay their revelry. The final tavern scene, when Basilio fakes his death to win Kitri’s hand, is full of precise comic touches, and the tableaux of the second act are a special wonder, the landscape of swashbuckling gypsies giving way to the Don’s rococo dream of idealized women and cupids (including six young cupids from the San Francisco Ballet School).
This production has only improved over the years, refreshed by new Martin Pakledinaz costumes dressing the townspeople in sunny sherbet hues. With the Petipa passages of bravura steps preserved, this is the kind of ballet that can send a ten-year-old into fits of giggles one minute while her mother marvels at exquisitely rendered fouettés the next. In fact, other than the fact that the music ain’t Tchaikovsky (instead we have circus-like ditties by Minkus padded with many interpolations), I’m hard pressed to find any faults in it.
With Froustey and Greco in the leads, we were treated to a study in rock-solid technique in service of wild abandon. Lanky and gamine, Froustey is Paris Opera-trained; compact and swashbuckling, Greco trained at La Scala. Her secret weapon is a rod-through-the-floor plumb-line, which held one dazzling attitude balance after another; his is a pair of super-articulated feet that launch unbelievably lofty jumps, aided by 180-degree turnout that make his positions in the air textbook-refined. To see all this technique taken for granted as she swung a leg into a ronde de jambe like a wide-open door, and he lowered a leg into that arabesque-derriere pirouette that stopped on a dime, was luxury itself. Frequently each tilted towards the edge of off-balance, but never, it seemed, without intentional devil-may-care recklessness.
Add to all this their charisma and chemistry. Froustey played up her pouty Audrey Hepburn-esque neck and shoulders in defiance of the father who would keep her from her true love; Greco made sure the audience saw how genuinely Basilio worried about Kitri’s affections when he wasn’t teasing her with jealousy, kissing on her friends. And did the grand wedding pas at the end ever deliver. Her variation milked a taffy-pulled echappe and threw in eight double fouettés, smirking, before the last singles—the final ones fudged, but who cared?
This is a ballet where the ensemble and the leads must feed symbiotically off each other’s energy, and the whole company was super-charged. Oles! must be shouted to every corps member who rocked the Act I Seguidilla and held head high through the Act III Fandango. Special bravos could be heard for new corps member Cavan Conley lending confident technique and a Chet Baker-like charm to the bullfighter Espada. I was particularly delighted to see Madison Keesler nearly steal the show in the challenging dance around the torreadors’ knives as Mercedes. Keesler has served humbly in the corps for nine years now (with a few years away); she proved herself soloist-worthy, and should be given such roles far more frequently.
Special theatrical laurels are also due to Alexandre Cagnat as the purple-feathered, handkerchief-dripping fop, Gamache, and to Pascal Molat’s belly-rubbing sidekick to the Don, Sancho Panza. The orchestra under Martin West has never sounded so sprightly. The whole show shouted Viva!, though the principals’ styles spoke in marvelously French and Italian-accented tongues.