Heads are still shaking over "Don Quixote." This 117-year-old ballet classic is anything but sublime. Yet yards of exuberant, varied dancing to lilting tunes give the piece survival value despite the mugging that conveys a plot that's silly (don't blame Cervantes). American Ballet Theatre's version by Mikhail Baryshnikov has been in the repertory eight years, and judging by this weekend's four performances at the Kennedy Center, it will remain for years to come.
There have been changes, though, since this production was last seen here. Worst are the new "touring" sets. Flimsy, garish and cluttered, they evoke none of the beauty of the sun-drenched Spanish town or moonlit terrain with gypsy wagons and windmills where the action takes place. The best new item is a dance for five bridesmaids by Baryshnikov. It looks very Balanchine with its prancing steps and perky display of bodies. The many other alterations make little difference. "Don Q" remains a flawed ballet that becomes fun when the first steps ignite like sparklers and the dancing ends in fireworks.
The starring roles of Kitri and Basil were performed by Susan Jaffe and Patrick Bissell, Cynthia Harvey and Ross Stretton, Cheryl Yeager and Danilo Radojevic, and Martine van Hamel with Bissell again. Jaffe, new to the part, was lush and pliant in all the technical hurdles. With this asset, plus her physical beauty, she should have been memorable, but she hasn't yet learned to beguile by modulating her attack. Harvey's dancing is fast, strong and streamlined. Yeager's is sharp and fast with a filigree of inflections hiding its strength. Van Hamel has incredible amplitude; her smallest motion catapults into space. Jaffe and Yeager personified a literal Kitri, the spunky town beauty. Van Hamel's and Harvey's characters had two facets -- they were Kitri and ballerina both, with Harvey showing Spanish severity as well as flair and Van Hamel adding a dash of irony.
Bissell, in shape this season, was very American. His dancing is bold without bragging, and he prefers spontaneity to appearing polished. His pirouette turns were amazing in number and varied velocity. Radojevic isn't the showoff he used to be; his athletics are under control without the discipline spoiling his boyish image. Stretton's performance was mellow; he was a lover who knows he is loved.
As the Cupid figure, Amanda McKerrow had a becoming wicked lilt. Christine Spizzo made the part work by being goodness personified, while Bonnie Moore seemed a disembodied Ariel. Carla Stallings gave the Dream Maiden solo a spaciousness befitting the generosity of those jumps into high sideward extensions. Best in a small role was Gill Boggs for his improvised urchin. Improved ensemble spacing is still needed so that when line upon line of dancers advance, the onslaught has its full effect.