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Cuban Star Helps Inspire Washington Constellation
Viengsay Valdes's Lively Spirits Are En Pointe

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 17, 2009

It's rare when a regional company can rise to the level of its world-class guest star so that she blends in seamlessly with the group. This was the case at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater on Thursday, when the Washington Ballet performed a handsome full-length "Don Quixote" with Ballet Nacional de Cuba ballerina Viengsay Valdes in the leading role.

It was a fine production -- if you can stand canned music.

That is a big "if." It's too big for me; as much as I thrilled to the dancing, I wanted to cover my ears all night. But putting that aside for now, what you expect foremost in "Don Quixote" is firecracker technique and lively storytelling, and this what the Washington Ballet delivered.

The ballet was staged by former Boston Ballet director Anna-Marie Holmes, whose version of the 19th-century original by Marius Petipa emphasizes the humor in the tale of how village sweetie Kitri (Valdes, on Thursday as well as Saturday night) and her barber boyfriend, Basilio (Jonathan Jordan), outwit Kitri's father and finally wed. The don of the title staggers on now and then; he's largely a cipher here. But the ballet roils with character actors who turned the whole production into juicy theater.

The performance wouldn't have been the same without Valdes's infectious high spirits and truly splendid technique, but neither would it have been as much fun without Peter DiMuro as Lorenzo, Kitri's blustery father; Carlos Valcarcel as Gamache, the parasol-toting dandy Lorenzo wants Kitri to marry; or Zachary Hackstock as Sancho Panza, Don Quixote's bumbling squire. Who knew that DiMuro, the longtime member of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, would be the perfect actor-clown for ballet?

The ballet was cast from strength throughout, with new hire Brooklyn Mack displaying calm power as Espada, the cape-twirling toreador; Jade Payette was a classically polished Queen of the Dryads, and Sona Kharatian burned with submerged fire as Mercedes, the street dancer.

The role of Kitri calls for more jumps than just about any other classical part, and Valdes's flights in space were tireless -- and huge. But I have never seen another dancer who has so perfected the art of standing still. She could balance on the tip of one exquisitely arched foot for such a long time that some in the audience were moved to helpless laughter at the sheer outrageousness of her poise. I joined them; what else could one do?

She pulled off the amazing, time and again. At one point, she stood in perfect arabesque, balanced high en pointe on one leg, with the other raised behind her. Still balanced, she moved the outstretched leg into passe and developpe front, which is to say she bent the leg and brought it crisply underneath her, then unfolded it high and straight again in front of her, as if she were going to tap herself on the nose with her satin slipper. She even prolonged the balance here, luxuriating in the stillness of a theater in which not another soul was breathing.

Jordan, meanwhile, had simply gotten out of the way. A clean, purposeful technician, he could claim the stage when it was his time to do so, but now he stood awaiting her signal. After a few beats Valdes flashed him a you-may-touch-me-now look. Lowering her leg with the tranquillity of a queen, she became a mortal biped once more, back on earth with the rest of us.

A memorable performance such as this -- saddled with taped music. Talk about a downer. It's worth noting that taped sound is unusual in the world of full-length ballets, especially those danced in a premier space like the Kennedy Center. It's the kind of experience you have with the touring troupes of cut-rate Russians who perform at community colleges.

This wasn't a blending of recorded elements with a few live players; this was entirely secondhand sound. And secondhand Minkus -- the Austrian-born music-meister of Russian ballet's heyday -- is a harsh sentence indeed. His fast tempos, the bouncy waltzes with their booming bass drums and excitable flutes, struck the ear hard. It was disorienting to hear all that music bearing down from on high, where the speakers must be, rather than swelling up from ground level as it would were it produced in the orchestra pit. Live music from the pit seems to billow around the stage, a living, responsive participant in the dancers' world. The taped sound was a cold blanket to the warmth onstage.

It's not impossible to watch a mixed-repertory performance with inanimate sound. But an evening-length, three-act ballet-by-boombox felt half-dressed. Worse. I missed not only the live sound, but also the physical presence of a conductor, the expressive communication of his or her hands and the conductor's ability to smooth transitions and integrate one musical section with the next.

Cutting out live music here was not a measure to put ballet in the reach of the masses. Orchestra seats for "Don Quixote" go for $85. No, it's a sign of very bad news. In December, the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker" will also go on without an orchestra. Apparently, this troupe is joining the ranks of others that have cut live music as their budgets fall. The most dispiriting question is this: Once a ballet company goes down that road, and once audiences accept it, will it ever go back?

Performances of "Don Quixote" continue with cast changes through Sunday.

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