‘Don Quixote’ Battles Windmills and Weak Narrative, Wins with Strong Performances

While the novel “Don Quixote” is considered one of the most influential works of literature, the ballet version is deemed a relic. It doesn’t have the strong narrative of a Swan Lake or Giselle. However, City Ballet of San Diego’s dressed up Don Quixote triumphed with solid performances, elaborate sets and costumes, and the return of its orchestra in a revival May 8-10 at the Spreckels Theatre.

This might be one of the least emotionally moving ballets, yet the Saturday-night cast rose above the silly setting of bullfighters and gypsies with lovely technique. Noble talents between father and daughter stars added a dramatic connection and endearing layer to the strained plot.

Rony Lenis as Sancho Panza and Steven Wistrich as Don Quixote. - Courtesy City Ballet of San Diego

Rony Lenis as Sancho Panza and Steven Wistrich as Don Quixote. – Courtesy City Ballet of San Diego

Artistic director Steven Wistrich played the mixed up Don Quixote in 2001 and 2008, and here he gave a romantic performance marked by expressive mime and the required sword swipes at windmills. His daughter, Ariana Gonzalez, danced the spunky Kitri heroine and reminded the crowd that good ballet is athletic theater.

His wife, choreographer Elizabeth Wistrich, reset steps after Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky of Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet. Along with fine footwork and airy phrasing, beauty was found in slight glances from a father watching his daughter. When Don Quixote sees Kitri, he thinks she’s the beautiful Dulcinea from his dreams.

He conjured the hidalgo who read too many novels and lost his mind. We wanted to cheer when he rode off to bring justice to the world, on his pretend horse. Rony Lenis introduced his Sancho Panza to San Diego audiences, not as a sleek valet but as a belly rubbing fool who felt important when handling his boss’s giant spear. A real charmer, he liked the ladies and fights too.

Gonzalez brought technical thrills and gleaming confidence to Kitri, the innkeeper’s daughter in love with Basilio, the town barber. With eye-popping fouette turns, fish dives, and one-arm lifts, the Kitri role seemed designed for Gonzalez. A world-class dancer, the former Ariana Samuelsson married Geoff Gonzalez last fall. She dances with the company full time. He is focusing on choreography and did not perform in this production. The two hope to take over the company when her parents decide it’s time.

Ariana Gonzalez and Stephano Candreva as Kitri and Basilio. Courtesy image

Ariana Gonzalez and Stephano Candreva as Kitri and Basilio. Courtesy image

In this ballet story, Stephano Candreva’s Basilio proved her technical and theatrical equal. Together they took the relic ballet to a likeable farce, and Candreva’s leaps and lifts were a welcome surprise.

Caitlyn Gallison and Derek Lauer as Mercedes and the toreador Espada led Barcelona tavern folks in waltz and tambourine beats, and helped their friends escape. Skin toned tights and velvet leggings in purple and blue for the men (Lucas Ataide and Ryosuke Ogura) suggested sexy and gaudy interpretations.

The three-act ballet ran long with two intermissions. We followed Kitri trying to get her dad (a flustered John Diaz) to let her marry Basilio, not the noble fop. Kevin Engle gave the ludicrous Gamache leggy camp and long black curls.

Kitri and Basilio sneaked off. Lorenzo, Gamache, Don Quixote and plump servant set off to find them. There were moments when we wished not for windmills and gypsies, but fairies and resolution. Put down that spear Don, wake up, we have a wedding date at the castle. The dream scene offered glittering ballerinas and lovely phrasing, and Erica Alvarado as Dulcinea, the delicate lady of the Don’s heart and dreams.

Six women alternating as Urchins were suitably dirty and annoying, and too tall. Urchins, according to Charles Dickens, are little children. Children did appear as baby cupids in the dream scene, but here was a chance to showcase more young dancers and they missed it.

Ariana Gonzalez poses as Kitri as Don Quixote and baby cupids look on. Courtesy image

 Don Quixote dreams of  baby cupids and images of Kitri, symbol of his Dulcinea. Courtesy image

We bring this up only because the agile dancing and production elements were so good. It came down to details: flamenco hops on the toes, regal partnering, and the transformation of Wistrich from classical performer, dance teacher and father, to wandering knight obsessed with foolish ideas of chivalry.

John Nettles boosted the deep sounds of Minkus’ score, and we thank him and the City Ballet Orchestra. Days before the Balanchine Spectacular in March, the company lost a donor and had to pull the orchestra. New patrons have stepped up. While it’s nice to be seen, pit clothes don’t cut it when you’re up top. With the large orchestra overflowing the pit, there was an expectation of formal attire to match this dressed up production.

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