The opening of American Ballet Theatre's month-long engagement at Kennedy Center last night was in the nature, in more ways than one, of a renewal of old acquaintance, and it engendered many of the same feelings of joyful recognition and reunion.
It wasn't only the annual return of the center's "official" ballet troupe, but the ballet itself -- Mikhail Baryshnikov's production of the Russian comedy classic, "Don Quixote" -- which made the evening seem like a redezvous with a friend. The same opus had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center during ABT's visit last March, and the occasion lingers in memory as one of the ballet highlights of the center's history.
Baryshnikov's staging seemed as frothy and fetching as one remembered. There was a very considerable difference from the last time around, however -- Baryshnikov himself is no longer with ABT, having decided not long after the "Don Quixote" premiere to join George Balanchine's New York City Ballet. There's no question that Baryshnikov's own performance as Basil, the romantic hero of the piece, was one of the prime assets of the production, and that, as alternate casts last spring made clear, it's not possible for anyone to "take his place."
At the same time, the ballet remains eminently diverting, all the more so when artists of the caliber of Fernando Bujones and Natalia Makarova, who danced as Basil and Kitri last night, are holding forth. In this renewed, for this was the first time this couple appeared in these roles in Washington, and they inevitably bestowed their own multiple personal charms on the ballet as a whole.
It was Baryshnikov's notion to take the Russian legacy of "Don Quixote" -- a ballet originally created by Marius Petipa and later revised by Alexander Gorsky -- and speed it up to Broadway tempo, by compressing the action, paring the mimed business to a minimum, and putting the horseplay and the dancing in the spotlight.
The ballet seemed to whiz by more effervescently than ever last night, so much so that it was hard to keep abreast of all the shenanigans. At the same time, neither Makarova nor Bujones was in best form, and the performance in general had an off-the-mark feeling about it that kept the company effort from reaching its expected, cumulative impact.
This was a pity, for the leads were not only well matched, but individually so well suited to their roles.
Makarova's vivid presence and natural sauciness, along with her own upbringing in the Russian classics, make her an ideal Kitri. Indeed, insofar as style and characterization and temperamental flair were concerned, her performance as the shrewd soubrette who defies a greedy father to marry the poor barber she loves was a marvel.
But technically she seemed to be having a rough time, despite isolated moments of brilliance and command.
What mattered really was not the lack of bravura, but the dampening effect her insecurities had on her involvement in the role. Even so, there were wonderful, privileged moments -- her mock "grief" over Basil's fake suicide, for instance.
Bujones, too, seems tailor-made for the gaily swaggering escapades of Basil, and more than anyone else who has previously assayed the role aside from Baryshnikov, he is equipped to turn the virtuoso challenge to great advantage. He was often breathtaking last night, in soaring jumps and sizzling turns, but it was also clear that this was far from his normal peak.
Some of the supporting performances were tops in every respect -- Becky Wright's pixieish Amour, Victor Barbee's lovably foppish Gamache, Frank Smith's oafish Lorenzo, among others. But it was an off-night in various respects -- missed lighting cues, scrambled timing, weakly coordinated staging and music added up to first-night blues on many levels. But the six repeated performances will provide ample chance for redress of faults. It's a charmer of a ballet, and with any kind of luck it will regain its erstwhile shimmer in short order.