"Don Quixote or Kitri's Wedding," Mikhail Baryshnikov's new version of the Russian ballet classic, is a thumping success by every available measure. Its Washington run has proven its ability to delight a mass audience, and as an occasion for splendiferous dancing, spectacle, color and whimsy, it is clearly a winner.
At the same time, one cannot help but recognize that by electing to remain within the bounds of the Petipa-Gorsky tradition which was his point of departure, Baryshnikov has chosen to work within two major self-imposed limitations.
The first is that Don Quixote himself, Cervantes' knight fo the rueful countenance, remains an extraneous figure, a side issue, so to speak, to the main business of the ballet, which is a jovial tale of an innkeeper's daughter who rebuffs a wealthy dandy of her father's choice to marry instead the poor barber she loves.
The second limitation derives from the music Leon Minkus composed for the original choreographic production by Marius Petipa in 1869, and which, with some cuts and minor transformations by ABT's Patrick Flynn, Baryshnikov has retained for his own version.
The "Don Quixote" score, written expressly as the background for an earthly comedy, is little more than a string of functional, but musically unrelated dance numbers, allowing no scope for dramatic development or characterization. The music performs its functions marvelously well, but by its very nature it obliges the sentiments of the ballet to remain very much on the surface.
In restoring the ballet for an American audience of the 1970s, Baryshnikov has sought to cope with both of these built-in structures, and the ways he has done so are the hallmarks of his inratiating personal approach.
To see why he proceeded as he did, it's instructive to review a bit about the origins of the ballet. It appears that "Don Quixote" began life as a split personality, and the bifurcation has persisted as an element in its stage evolution ever since. Petipa started it all by making two quite different versions of the same work. The earliest version of "Don Quixote" was Petipa's first work for the Moscow, and he designed it with precisely the Moscow audience in mind. It was essentially a naturalistic comedy, with the stock romance of Kitri, the innkeeper's daughter, and Basil the barber at its center. There were Spanish and Gypsy "character dances" (i.e., in a folkloric vein) by the dozen, along with lots of comic byplay.
When, on the heels of the Moscow success, Petipa restaged the work for St. Petersburg in 1871, however, he found himself catering to a far more refined taste. Most of the comedy was stricken, and a good many of the character dances were suppressed in favor of beefed-up classical scenes (including the Dream sequence which is still a key ingredient of the Baryshnikov version).
The important revival of the work by Alexander Gorsky at the turn of the century, first in Moscow (1900) and then again in St. Petersburg (1902), made further changes, under the heavy influence of Stanislavsky and in the general direction of stage realism. Most conspicuously, Gorsky strove to break up Petipa's classical symmetries in the ensemble scenes, turning rectangular formations into shifting, milling crowds.
On the whole, the current Moscow version is closer in spirit to the Gorsky production, while the one in Leningrad by the Kirov Ballet - the one on which Baryshnikov was reared and which became the first full-length ballet he was to appear in - reflects more of Petipa's St. Petersburg conception.
To any modern choreographer interested in healing the division, an obvious third course was open- to scrap the Minkus score and start from scratch with a new dramatic structure that would make Don Quixote the genuine protagonist of the ballet. This is just what George Balanchine did in 1965.
It was never Baryshnikov's intention, however, to engage in this kind of wholesale revision, nor does he fancy himself a maker of original choreography in the Balanchine sense. What he did want to do was to resurrect a ballet for which he had a keen personal fondness, and which had been a deeply ingrained part of his own background, but to bring it to life in a form that would make good theatrical sense to contemporary Westerners.
Thus he began by "modernizing" the ballet, to the extent of trimming the action and the dancing down to commodious proportions; jettisoning much mime and speeding the rest up to a Broadway tempo; and flavoring the whole with a tongue-in-cheek tone that would head off any audience assumptions about seriousness or metaphysical pretension.
In order to knit the Quixote figure and the Basil-Kitri story into a more palpable unity, he presents the Don not as an eccentric adventurer but as a symbol of romantic yearning, led on by the image of Dulcinea but then nmistaking Kitri and every other attractive female in sight for his ideal vision.
Toward this end, Baryshnikov utilizes a number of framing devices he had already successfully experimented with in his earlier production of another Russian classic, "The Nut-cracker." "Don Quixote" opens, like the Baryshnikov "Nutcracker," with a mimed prologue, in this case with piano accompaniment evoking silent film comedy, that adumbrates the entire plot of the ballet to follow - the Basil-Kitri romance, the objections of her father and his chosen suitor, and Quixote's search for Dulcinea.
In "Nutcracker" it is easy for the audience to become emotionally enmeshed in the relationship between Clara and the Prince. There is very little in "Don Quixote," however, to engage us with Basil and Kitri in the same way, so Baryshnikov fortifies our interest in them with one of his original touches - a "guitar pas de deux" at the beginning of the second act that mixes tenderness and humor in equal measure.
It cannot be said that Baryshnikov has managed to obliterate entirely the schizophrenic character of his model - the Petipa-Gorsky legacy that saddled him and us with two basically incompatible stories in one. On the other hand, he has seen to it that the stories not only intersect but inteact, given them a wonderfully brisk and jaunty fluency, and invested the whole thing with a playful charm that needs no other rationale. Above all, the production is radiant from start to finish with its author's own irrepressible good nature andintelligence.