Just as the iconic 1973 film transferred stage designs to film, and the choreography “from a stage setting to a film setting [to] let the camera tell the story,”1 The Australian Ballet have transferred the energy and humour of the film to the stage once more. As befits a company’s 60th anniversary, transplanting Rudolf Nureyev and Robert Helpmann’s “Don Quixote” from screen to stage 50 years later, called, of course, for a repolish of colour, as all tributes to legacy should. And so, to do justice to both anniversaries, as artistic director David Hallberg introduced, this rendition connects Nureyev’s “original stage choreography with the sets and costumes Barry Kay created for the film,”2 working from Kay’s unfinished sketches from the 1980s for a redesign to archival footage, and the original film set model.
This redesign and restoration, sans extras and perishables from the Queen Victoria Market, so the legend goes, is a joy. Where there was Don Quixote’s barn horse, Rocinante, spray-painted for dappled effect, we now have a life-size, rideable puppet (created and puppeteered by A Blanck Canvas), with communicative ears and ragged appearance as such a tale requires. Upon a screen, the opening credits appeared to roll, uniting this refreshed production further still to its cinematic Australian roots. Across the exquisite engravings of Gustave Doré, the cast was listed as in a film, including Don Quixote’s horse, and, in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek nature of “Don Quixote,” a disclaimer that no animals where harmed in this production. No matter where you pick them up—stage to screen or screen to stage—such references make you think of the other. This is, after all, in living memory for many, whether you saw the film at the time of original release or on a video frequently rewound to watch again or streamed it recently. In both, those 32 fouettés beguile in the wedding pas de deux, but foremost, it is the colourful momentum, that starts at a pace and accelerates.
As former principal artist Marilyn Rowe discussed her technique in the film version of “Don Quixote” with current principal artist Amy Harris, another entry point was made visible, hearing Rowe describe the importance of the arms (“to make the most of the arms to the very end of the music”) and “the breadth of the first jeté: really big”3 so as to carry you through, as Queen of the Dryads. “Don Quixote” is after all packed with a dizzying deal of dancing. On the opening night, and again on the Tuesday night performance the following week, principals Chengwu Guo as the cheeky barber Basilio and Ako Kondo as Kitri appeared to revel in the fast pace of the ballet as a whole and the exacting, fast footwork, and clean technique each of their roles demanded with a shared, playful vibrancy. Kondo, making her return to stage this season after maternity leave, is rarely still, unless she is suspended mid-flight in a single-hand balance by her Basilio or caught in a dive into his arms. Such pauses in impossible positions gave the impression of altering time, and, for me, are part of the appeal of a ballet that is full of showy hard bits when you press play. For Kondo, the role of Kitri was her first principal role with the company in 2013 and her first-time dancing alongside Chengwu4, her Basilio in the real world, she conveyed and sustained such for-the-love-of-it spark.
Seeing castles where there were inns, monsters where there were windmills, and the world on the pages of a book in the world before him, principal Adam Bull as Don Quixote was the perfect, intended contrast to the swift, exhilarating fare. The full-armoured, rusty anchor on a knight’s errant, accompanied by coryphée Timothy Coleman as Sancho Panza, Bull ensured a different kind of balance was held, one between the interior world to the flamboyant gallop of the outside world, with its swirling crowd scenes of port life in Barcelona. Idealistic in the face of the odds, Bull’s Knight of Sad Countenance, has ridden from the original penmanship of Cervantes (1605) out onto the stage, as a hero upside-down5 who ultimately demonstrates real virtue and becomes a Knight of the Lions. Bull may be retiring after a 22-year-long career at the conclusion of the Melbourne season of “Identity,” which follows on the heels of “Don Quixote,” but perhaps this won’t be the last time he graces the stage—or am I now the one lost in clouded visions?
Paul Knobloch as Gamache, the nobleman Kitri’s father Lorenzo would prefer she wed, freely laced and ruffled the humour, and principal artist Sharni Spencer as Queen of the Dryads, Harris as the Street Dancer, and soloist Yuumi Yamada as Cupid, though fleeting their appearance on stage, to me, extended the awe-inspired abundance of pure dance.
The vision: jubilation!
- ‘A Little of Don Quixote’, The Australian Ballet YouTube Channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IR5JJW-y_CA, accessed March 15, 2023.
- David Hallberg, Artistic Director, The Australian Ballet “Don Quixote” 2023 Melbourne program, 11.
- ‘Dancers react to the 1973 version of “Don Quixote,”’ The Australian Ballet YouTube Channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3ay73Nihz8, accessed March 16, 2023
- Ako Kondo in interview with Heather Bloom, ‘Ako Returns!’ Behind Ballet Blog, The Australian Ballet, February 2, 2023, https://australianballet.com.au/blog/ako-returns, accessed March 15, 2023
- J. M. Sobré, ‘Don Quixote, the Hero Upside-Down’, Hispanic Review, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Spring, 1976), University of Pennsylvania Press, https://www.jstor.org/stable/472831, accessed March 15, 2023, 127–141