Carlos Acosta is, without a doubt, a man of many talents.
His prodigious accomplishments as a dancer over the past 25 years - 16 of them with the Royal Ballet - are well known and recognised, not least by the award of a CBE just this year (2014). With retirement from dancing classical ballet looming ever closer, in recent years he has turned his hand to a variety of other challenges. His autobiography No way home: a Cuban dancer';s story
was published in 2007. He has dipped a toe into cinema acting in both a single segment of the portmanteau romantic comedy-drama New York, I love you
(2009) and the full-length feature film Day of the flowers
(2013). Of the latter performance, critic Lucy Popescu wrote that Acosta was "something of a revelation ... [and] a commanding screen presence". His first novel Pig';s foot
(2013) generated generally positive reviews, with Kate Saunders of The Times
, for instance, describing it as "terrific".
The year 2013 was obviously a busy one for Mr Acosta because as well as promoting Day of the flowers
and seeing Pig';s foot
through the presses, he was also choreographing and producing this Don Quixote
for the Royal Ballet. That was not the first time that he had turned his hand to choreography. Ten years earlier, what his own website describes as his "semi-autobiographical show" Tocororo
broke box office records at Sadler';s Wells Theatre in London and went on to win an Olivier Award. Don Quixote
was the first time that Acosta had made an attempt at producing a full-length classical ballet. It was eventually scheduled not just for a run of performances on the Covent Garden stage but for a live worldwide cinema relay and for subsequent broadcast on BBC TV. This was all supported by a big advance publicity drive by the Royal Opera House — you can see a brief promotional video here
. With all that PR ballyhoo, expectations were exceptionally high.
In several ways, Don Quixote
was a good choice for Acosta';s debut as producer-cum-dancer. In the first place, it was a ballet with which he was very familiar, as he had previously danced the leading role of the amorous but penurious barber Basilio with the Houston, Paris Opera and Mariinsky companies, as well as with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Secondly, Acosta';s personality and stage persona were particularly well suited to it. He conveys such natural geniality and exuberance that, while I remain sometimes unconvinced by his portrayals of princes or aristocrats, his "cheeky chappie" characterisations, such as his acclaimed role as Colas in La fille mal gardée
, ring entirely true. In the third place, Don Quixote
is an obvious crowd-pleaser. With its simple and broadly comic story, a setting that allows for bright, colourful sets and costumes, choreography by Marius Petipa at his most accomplished and a Ludwig Minkus score that combines irresistibly foot-tapping "Spanish" rhythms - think a couple of hours of Rimsky-Korsakov';s Capriccio Espagnol -
with appropriately romantic episodes for the lovers, it';s a ballet that sends everyone back out into the real world with the widest of smiles on their faces.
It';s a ballet, too, that has become increasingly popular in recent years, so that competition on DVD is now quite intense. We still await the release of a recorded performance from Russian superstars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev who have made the roles very much their own in the last few years. In the meantime, I have hugely enjoyed several others. That from Nina Ananiashvili/Alexei Fadeyechev/Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet (VAI 4451
) offers, in spite of some pretty low production values, a fabulous record of prima ballerina assoluta
Ms Ananiashvili in one of her signature roles. The Aurélie DuPont/Manuel Legris/Paris Opera Ballet release (Arthaus Musik 107009
) gives us a performance of great technical accomplishment, though a little lacking, perhaps, in spontaneity, while the Olesya Novikova/Leonid Sarafanov/Mariinsky Ballet recording (Decca 0743235
) is hugely enhanced by St Petersburg';s typically high production values and, in particular, Sarafanov';s sheer charisma. Meanwhile, the account from Viengsay Valdès/Romel Frómeta/Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BelAir classiques BAC036) overcomes the drawbacks of the barest of sets and recorded - not live - music thanks to utterly winning performances from its young and enthusiastic leads. In contrast, the more sophisticated Anna Tsygankova/Matthew Golding/Dutch National Ballet production (Arthaus Musik 101561
) not only gives us accomplished performances but also offers an intriguing new twist as the secondary roles of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are enhanced by allocating them to the Dutch equivalents of Laurel and Hardy. Although I warm to them rather less, the Mikhail Baryshnikov/Cynthia Harvey/American Ballet Theatre partnership (Warner Music Vision/NVC Arts 0630-19399-2) and Rudolf Nureyev';s cinema version in which his co-star was Lucette Aldous (Kultur Blu-ray BD1175
) also have many admirers.
So how does this new Marianela Nuñez/Carlos Acosta/Royal Ballet version fare in comparison? I will lay my cards in the table right away at this point. There are, from my entirely subjective and personal point of view, two major issues that caused me concern in this production. If, as many will no doubt do, you have no difficulty with them, then you will certainly find the expert execution of this performance provides a very enjoyable experience. If, however, you find yourself sharing my unease with the issues that I will address shortly, then you will probably, at least to a degree, find that your pleasure in this release is compromised.
Like most viewers, I tend to watch any "extras" on a disc only after viewing the main feature. On this occasion, however, an eight-minute supplementary feature provides such useful information, explaining this production';s underlying approach and some of its more striking features, that it';s worth drawing to your attention before I consider the ballet performance itself.
The members of the Royal Ballet who were interviewed for this short film have all clearly absorbed Carlos Acosta';s very personal attitude to Don Quixote
. He himself says that he did not want to revive a "museum piece", but instead aimed to overcome the "stigma and rigidity of classicism" and to create something "much more fresher.". In a similar vein, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone describes the ultimate objective as the creation of a "fun, lively production", while conductor Martin Yates confirms that the overall plan was to "drag [Don Quixote
] into the 21st century and make it feel like it';s part of real life".
The first striking means by which Acosta attempts to achieve that process of modernisation is by using unexpected sounds to break the traditional silence of classical ballet. While audiences are well used to dancers clapping on stage to emphasise rhythm, Acosta goes a step further and also utilises the human voice. He makes the claim, in the supplementary feature, that a loud and repeated cry of "Viva Espada!" after that dancer';s first solo (26:55) has been inserted so as to "lift the atmosphere" and there are other prominent vocal interjections from the stage at, for instance, 59:56-60:06 and 61:26-61:40. Another new sound that he introduces is the flamenco guitar played live and solo on stage, with a lengthy sequence (from 65:50 onwards) interrupting the usual orchestral score during the scene at the gypsy camp.
I suspect that a second means of making Don Quixote
"feel like it';s part of real life" for a contemporary audience has been the decision to discard Minkus'; original "museum piece" orchestration. Instead, Martin Yates has produced a lighter, more transparent account of the score. I imagine that, apropos the stated intention to bring Don
Quixote up to date, it is one thought to be more "user-friendly" to 21st century audiences who are used to hearing orchestras that are sized and equipped for the TV studio rather than for the concert hall.
It is worth stressing once again that those two changes may well be to many people';s tastes - and the Covent Garden audience certainly seems very enthusiastic. I, however, find them quite depressing. Isn';t it something of an admission of defeat to consider that this ballet';s atmosphere needs "lifting" - whatever that means in this context - by the injection of voices when audiences for the past 140 years have been quite happy with it as it was? I don';t think that I will be alone in thinking that, in general, raucous shouting destroys the magical atmosphere of classical ballet, even in the often flashy and musically rum-ti-tum world of Don Quixote.
Meanwhile, the flamenco guitar interlude - presumably inserted primarily to add atmosphere but also serving as an opportunity for a bit of emoting from the lovesick Don - did little for me except to slow the action right down to an unnecessary degree.
Nor am I too happy with the new orchestral score. Anyone familiar with performances by the orchestras of the Bolshoi, who have been playing Don Quixote
since its 1869 premiere, or the Mariinsky, who have had it in their repertoire since 1871, will know how impressive Minkus';s music is when presented in its richly coloured and weighty original form. A frankly condescending belief that modern audiences won';t feel comfortable with it seems to have begun in the 1960s and 1970s when it was fashionable to mock and discard much of the past in favour of ephemeral novelty. Thus, when putting together his 1973 Don Quixote
feature film, Rudolf Nureyev - always keen to be seen as an artistic trend-setter - asked John Lanchbery to create a more contemporary orchestration. In practice, that meant adding all sorts of inauthentic and unnecessary tiddly-pom-pom-pom moments, as well as using trumpets and other instruments to point up the on-screen action in an often rather crude and vulgar manner. Sadly, the musical approach in Carlos Acosta';s production is closer to Lanchbery's approach than to the Bolshoi's. While Russian forces depict the Barcelona cityscape as if a thrillingly vibrant and dramatic canvas in oil paints, here it's revealed as a bright poster executed in acrylics for a Costa Brava package tour.
With my two personal reservations out of the way, I need to stress that there is still a very great deal to enjoy in this production. For one thing, the story has been given greater than usual coherence by the extra prominence accorded to the character of Dulcinea. The very effective and focused Prologue makes it plain that she is the real inspiration for what follows and that the eponymous hero is suffering an all too genuine psychological obsession. In a similar way, Dulcinea reappears briefly in the first Act (43:34-44-27): the lights dim, the rest of the on-stage action is frozen in time and we are reminded of the Don';s ever-present fixation on his womanly ideal. Something similar happens, though this time without the appearance of a visible apparition, in Act 2';s gypsy encampment. All this is a definite improvement on those productions where Dulcinea is gratuitously - and, for those unfamiliar with the story, inexplicably - shoehorned from time to time into the proceedings.
I also appreciated Tim Hatley';s set designs. The more abstract ones used for Act 2';s gypsy camp and especially during Don Quixote';s dream were particularly striking, but the Act 3 tavern set was also a success. I liked Act 3';s town square which was all the better for providing a big space for the dancers. That was a big improvement over Act 1 where, supposedly depicting the same square, the stage had been far more constricted by large flats which, although attractive and eye-catching in themselves, occasionally moved around spontaneously and for no clear purpose at all (10:16-10:27 and 33:39-33:54). Another clever design was that of Don Quixote';s horse. Some productions like to use a real animal, which usually goes down well with an audience, even if, I suspect, some members are secretly hoping for the excitement of an unscheduled on-stage "accident". Animal welfare concerns usually mean, however, that the beast is acceptably sleek, healthy and well-fed, which is frankly nonsense, given that the impoverished and rather tatty Don otherwise sports a battered shaving bowl for a helmet and an old bedpost for a lance. Tim Hadley overcomes that issue here very successfully by creating a mangy and utterly bedraggled creature, largely composed of straw and moving on wheels, somewhat reminiscent of the "animal" depicted in the stage production of Warhorse
As one would expect from a Royal Ballet production, the dancing is of a very high standard. The production clearly benefits, moreover, from the fact that, at the head of the cast, Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta seem to have a genuine personal rapport that communicates itself directly and easily to the audience. Nuñez makes the biggest impact, not just because of her technical skills but because she clearly enters into the spirit of the piece with the greatest enthusiasm. Her Kitri is all broad grins, twinkling eyes and flirtatious winks from beginning to end. She obviously knows how pretty she is - and uses that fact outrageously - but is simultaneously aware of just how lucky she is to have ensnared Basilio. In Act 2, her "Dulcinea" persona effectively offers Nuñez the chance to demonstrate another side of her skills and technique, and she seizes that opportunity too with relish. Meanwhile, Carlos Acosta is Carlos Acosta - meaning that he delights his admirers, both on stage and off, with all his substantial personal charm as well as his skill. It is impossible to deny, however, that age is starting to take its toll - a fact that he himself confirmed when recently announcing his anticipated retirement
from performing in classical ballet (review). In this Don Quixote
I sensed that Acosta was keeping something in reserve during Acts 1 and 2. While he can still be technically very impressive, as in his solo at 47:18-48:05, at some points he failed to make the impact one might have expected. His entrance at 39:20, for example, lacked the outrageously virile athleticism and bravura that Ivan Vasiliev - admittedly a full 16 years Acosta';s junior - routinely brings to the role. In Act 3, however, Acosta unleashes his full powers in the final pas de
deux, even though it';s interrupted by an unnecessary "Viva!" He will be a real loss to the Royal Ballet in the classical ballet repertoire.
Christopher Saunders brings genuine pathos to the title role, even if once or twice I thought he looked a little too young. He is well supported by Philip Mosley as his wily but loyal sidekick Sancho Panza. Of the other main roles, I particularly enjoyed Bennet Gartside';s Gamache. While his characterisation is still humorously effeminate, here he also exhibits a lively appreciation for the ladies rather than, as sometimes hinted, the matadors. This Gamache even ends up, after an unnecessary and unfunny "comic" duel with the Don, engaged to a streetwise tavern wench. Ryoichi Hirano';s Espada is another striking success that goes down well with the audience, while Kitri';s two nameless friends are more fully characterised than usual and make a strong contribution. In the Act 2 dream sequence, some exquisite dancing from both the Queen of the Dryads and Amour adds to the overall pleasure.
Some engaging new characters are introduced in the shape of a group of street urchins who cause regular mayhem in the city square - usually at the expense of the preening but hapless Gamache. Apart from that aforementioned tendency to vocalise, the well differentiated and characterised members of the corps de ballet
add hugely to the fun, though I would prefer to see a few more matadors filling out the stage. Those particular gents are also a little too conscious of modern Health & Safety regulations. In every other production that I';ve seen, they place their knives blade-up on the ground for Mercedes to dance around. Here, however, those knives are replaced by their empty wine cups (30:55-31:04)... Now, where';s the thrill in that? By the way, mention of wine cups reminds me of some good news for those of you who were disappointed that the mechanical horse avoided the risk of an onstage "accident". If that';s your way of thinking, you can indulge your Schadenfreude
by going straight to 92:08 where a bemused and butterfingers member of the corps de ballet
fails to catch Basilio';s wine cup when it';s tossed nonchalantly in his direction.
When I';m reduced to mentioning dropped props, you can probably tell that, apart from my two major concerns, I am beginning to clutch at straws to find much to fault in this well-filmed and, on Blu-ray, beautifully reproduced production. Even so, in an interview he gave to The Sunday Times
last year Carlos Acosta himself conceded that, as it stood, his Don Quixote
had still not quite reached its final state. "The next time, we will have time to fix it", he was quoted as saying, "and eventually, the third time it comes round, it will be perfect and it will last."
Balletomanes are currently fortunate to enjoy the luxury of being able to buy two versions of the same Royal Ballet production of Prokofiev/MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet
, one from 2007 and the other from 2012. If that encouraging precedent is followed, perhaps Carlos Acosta';s Don Quixote
will be filmed again towards the end of this decade, by which time, if its own producer';s prediction is correct, any current infelicities may have been addressed. In the meantime, though, this imaginative and well performed home-grown version of Minkus/Petipa';s comic masterpiece provides yet more evidence of Carlos Acosta's creativity and versatility. It will certainly do very well to be going on with.