The Minkus revival continues apace. We Don Quixote groupies even seem to have a celebrity president these days, for I spotted British comedian Julian Clary in the audience both at Covent Garden in August 2010 - when the Bolshoi Ballet showcased its superb soloists Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev - and at the Bristol Hippodrome in February this year, with the rather less stellar but nonetheless very enjoyable Russian State Ballet of Siberia.
And Julian would, I suspect, hugely appreciate this newly filmed production too, not only for its generally excellent artistic standards but because it adds an individual twist by giving far more than usual attention to the figures of Don Quixote himself and his squire Sancho Panza. Those two characters figure almost peripherally in most productions of the ballet. Indeed, as I have previously observed, the prologue that introduces them is sometimes heavily cut or even, as when this Dutch National Ballet performance was later edited to be broadcast on Netherlands TV, jettisoned completely. Note, though, that the edited material has been fully restored for this DVD release.
The increased focus on the fantasising knight and his more down-to-earth sidekick in this new version is largely explained by the fact that they are played by two of the Netherlands’s best loved comedians, Peter de Jong and Karel de Rooij, popularly known by their stage names Mini and Maxi. That’s the equivalent, perhaps, of casting Morecambe and Wise or, in a closer approximation of the Dutch duo’s comic personae, Laurel and Hardy. The DVD’s rear cover is careful to list them as actors rather than dancers, but in fact they both move on stage with obvious appreciation for the score’s requirements and incorporate their various bits of stage business into it very effectively. Come to think of it, Laurel and Hardy were pretty fine dancers too when they needed to be - see Way Out West if you’ve forgotten. De Jong and de Rooij are very decent actors, too, and their final exit from the stage is well managed and rather moving. The audience quite simply loves them.
Another distinctive characteristic of this production is its “Dutch” look. Most Don Quixotes take their colour palette from our stereotyped view of Spain, with lots of vibrantly hot reds in both costumes and sets. The colours here, though, reminded me very often of Vermeer’s blues and dun browns. In a similar way, the stage backdrop, usually a cityscape of houses, churches and sometimes a harbour, is here like an immense copy of one of 17th century Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael’s famous views of Haarlem, with a characteristically large proportion being taken up by the sky. At the time that Cervantes was writing his epic novel, the Netherlands was still regarded by Spain as a colony in revolt, so I guess that there is some sort of arguable connection there, if a rather tenuous one.
But what of the dancing? Unless you are expecting something of the highest superstar quality such as the aforementioned Osipova and Vasiliev or, on DVD, Nureyev, Ananiashvili or Sarafanov, you will be more than satisfied with these performances. As the heroine Kitri, Anna Tsygankova’s technique is of a very high order indeed. That said, the director’s decision to have her on stage from the opening of the town square scene rather than bursting in with a flourish from the wings as is more usually done, rather spoils for me what my colleague Dan Morgan describes as her “splendid entrance”. Her Basilio, Matthew Golding - a rare example of a ballet dancer who sports facial hair – commands the stage from his first entrance and holds our attention throughout with a very satisfying mix of sheer physicality and artistry. There is a palpable chemistry between him and Tsygankova. In supporting roles, I was especially taken with Moises Martin Cintas as a very lively Espada and Dario Mealli whose characterisation of Kitri’s spurned suitor Gamache is rather less camp and rather more touching than usually encountered.
The well marshalled yet cleverly characterised members of the Dutch National Ballet company keep everything moving along in spirited fashion in the background – and occasionally in the foreground. This is crucially important in Minkus’s lively, irresistibly foot-tapping score. As critic Richard Buckle once rightly observed: “As entertainment, Don Quixote pours forth such a varied flow of jolly dances ... that one is kept in high spirits throughout the evening. I believe that you could put it on for a run in the West End, but the dancers would be dead in a week if you did.” (Richard Buckle reviewing a Ballet Rambert production in July 1962, reprinted in Buckle at the Ballet: selected criticism by Richard Buckle [London, 1980], p.284).
There are a few oddities in the production. The catchy march that usually introduces the final Kitri/Basilio “wedding celebrations” act, for instance, surfaces here as a wedding march for Kitri and Gamache which is only frustrated at the last minute by Basilio’s faked suicide. On the whole everything is very satisfyingly and successfully done.
Although the Dutch National Ballet website doesn’t indicate any live performances of this Don Quixote in the near future, I imagine that if ever a revival’s announced Julian Clary and the rest of us Minkus groupies will be booking the first available tickets to Amsterdam.