From Cuban Ballet, a ‘Don Quixote’ worthy of the name

Surely the galloping pulse of “Don Quixote” on Thursday night was helped along by all the spectator hearts beating in time with the music. For it was an audience of captives that watched this satisfying production by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba at the Kennedy Center Opera House, an audience helplessly in thrall to that timeworn Ludwig Minkus score revitalized by dancing that made you fall in love with ballet all over again.

“Don Quixote” is a fiesta for firebrands, and the Cubans did not disappoint. The fine corps de ballet was a star attraction in itself, with its living engagement in every scene. These dancers were not simply backdrops for the soloists, they were a true community. They jockeyed to get a closer look at the fiery duets, or jumped into the comical fray with dear old Don Quixote himself and his sidekick, Sancho Panza.

The evening was cast from strength throughout. The bullfighters could surely draw blood with their lance-sharp legs, and, thrillingly, they all caught air at the same musical moment. With star turns of their own, Jose Losada as their leader and Amaya Rodriguez as his lover more than whet the appetite for the dazzling appearances of the evening’s luminaries, Viengsay Valdes as village beauty Kitri, and Alejandro Virelles as Basilio, her barber beau.

Valdes is a special dancer, one who can bring 2,000 audience members into her confidence with a flick of her eyelashes, and broadcast her joy to the balconies with an enveloping smile and a toss of her arms. In a series of whipping turns, she’s a blur. When she takes a balance, she stops time. Who knows by what combination of muscles, will and inner steel she can remain poised on one leg, on one pointed crescent of a foot, seizing gravity by the throat while the rest of us hold our breath and bars of music roll by and eons pass; the debt ceiling cracks and Washington surely comes to its senses about embargoes and . . . oh yes, then Valdes takes a little breath, stretches her limbs out just a bit more and settles down to earth again.

Virelles is every bit her equal, with the casual grace and bemused grin of a teen heartthrob. (Company representatives declined to give his age.) He has beautiful long legs that scissor open in his jumps, and he shoots airborne without a trace of effort. In fact, effort wasn’t apparent anywhere in this performance; watching the Cubans made one realize how common it is to see other dancers muscle through the physical exertions that these dancers whip off with apparent ease.

There are so many stellar qualities in this company, all of them underscoring a wide-open embrace of physical potential. You see this, too, in the presence of dancers of color throughout the ranks.

Best of all, the physical connects with the spiritual in what I consider this production’s chief glory: the simple fact that it tells a good story.

“Don Quixote” the ballet has never had much to do with “Don Quixote” the Cervantes literary masterpiece. The knight of the title is a minor character, an old fool, in most versions of the ballet, originally created by Marius Petipa in 1869. In 1998, Alicia Alonso, director of the Cuban company, changed that. She teamed up with colleagues Marta Garcia and Maria Elena Llorente to create the version being performed here through Sunday. They have made “Don Quixote” into a true love story, with the Don’s devotion to Dulcinea, his vision of an ideal woman, threaded through every act. The character of Dulcinea, so central to the book, is not found in most versions of the ballet, but she is one of Alonso’s innovations.

In fact, Kitri has more depth here because she becomes Dulcinea’s twin in the Don’s mind. In the joining of Dulcinea and Kitri — they dance briefly back-to-back in a couple of key, dreamy moments — we’re encouraged to see Kitri as more than just a flirt, but in ennobling terms as well. And this idea of a ballerina representing an ideal, and developing over the course of the evening into an ever-stronger person, physically and spiritually, moves “Don Quixote” into good company. “The Sleeping Beauty” and even “The Nutcracker” contain this notion too, that the heroine’s perfect technique reflects her goodness of character. Inner fortitude is expressed through external finesse. This is what is classical about classical ballet.

“Don Quixote” has always been a classical ballet in terms of its style and dance vocabulary. But in its usual treatment, as a string of virtuosic showstoppers punctuated with bits of comedy, the story is lost and the greater symbolism overlooked. Take the “vision scene” in the second act, when the Don falls asleep and dreams of sweet young ladies in orderly formations. This is usually a pretty but incongruous moment in the ballet, an excuse to show off rows of tutus. But in the Cuban version, the Don appears in his own dream, partnering his beloved Dulcinea in her red dress and veil. Then Kitri takes her place as the Don regards her in awe, and so do we, because we’re seeing her through his eyes.

Lovely, too, is the full moon painted on the set; it looks just like the Don’s battered round shield, which lies on the ground. This is his dream, after all, in which he’s the hero, his shield sheds the guiding light and his girl is finally in his arms . . .

And just then, Sancho Panza wakes him up. Perfect.

The Don may not get his wish, but we did. And more.

The Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs “Don Quixote” through Sunday afternoon, with cast changes.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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