"Don Quixote" brings together what the Bolshoi Ballet does best: grandiose technical feats, juicy folk dancing and a stage full of characters so vividly realized you feel you could sit and chat with them. Added to that Friday night at Wolf Trap were the splendors of the company's own orchestra, rendering the full-blooded Ludwig Minkus score with a buoyancy to match the dancers. And no (sniff), we simply don't care that the Bolshoi arrived without its star ballerina. Svetlana Zakharova, she of the extravagant flexibility and cheek-grazing kicks, danced recently in New York but was absent here. Well, so much the better. In the leading role was Maria Alexandrova, a dark-haired beauty with knowing eyes and a ravishing smile whom Washington audiences helped propel to grandeur. At least, we can lay claim to an early prophetic view of her: It was five years ago that the Bolshoi last appeared locally with "Don Quixote," and her Sunday matinee performance in the leading role, when she was just 20, set audiences abuzz with wonder.
Now a principal dancer, Alexandrova has lost none of the charismatic gaiety she possessed then, and has added to it supreme confidence and smartly chiseled execution. Her jump is huge and effortless, her balances assertive. Her considerable strength starts in her feet. Rather than pillowy supple, they are sharp and stabbing, which lends her swift little bourree steps on pointe an insistent fluttering quality. Her Kitri, the innkeeper's daughter whose efforts to wed against her father's wishes set the ballet in motion, was not only spirited but cunning. It's a volatile mix. You could believe she had been flummoxing her father and all her Barcelona neighbors since babyhood.
As Basil, the barber she loves, the handsome, wavy-haired Yury Klevtsov met Alexandrova's fire with cool command. Basil is not a role for a technical showoff, especially in this production (credited to former Bolshoi director Alexei Fadeyechev, after the 19th-century original by Marius Petipa and later ideas by Alexander Gorsky).
There's some comedy, and a bit of slapstick, but few solo bravura moments. These Klevtsov handled with workmanlike polish: nothing spectacular, yet neither did he strain nor oversell. He knew he was there primarily to sling Alexandrova around, which he did with jaw-squaring resolve. She torpedoed at him from a running start that began halfway across the stage; he caught her with scarcely a recoil. Twice. She unleashed a whopping jump, and he snatched her from the air, displaying her prettily across his knee. Also twice.
And early on, in a move that is a Bolshoi specialty, he thrust her high overhead with one hand, transforming himself into a solid pillar atop which Alexandrova was splayed like a contessa's open fan. The second time Klevtsov lifted her with that bionic arm, she posed stock-still for a few extra heartbeats (even conductor Pavel Klinichev froze his baton, as there was no music to fill in this long a pause), finally cocking her head to flash the audience a bright "isn't-this-fabulous" smile. Below her, Klevtsov did not flinch. You look at a man differently after he does that.
There's not a whole lot of story that connects these splendid moments. While Kitri and Basil are escaping the disapproving father, the aging offbeat knight Don Quixote and his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, get caught up with Gypsies and windmills, and everything ends with a wedding party. But the Bolshoi dancers invested every event with lively conviction, and the whole merry world came to life against Sergey Barkhin's painterly sets. Especially fine was Barcelona's sun-washed seascape and the second act's country tavern with its lustily liquored-up clientele.
The ballet was cast from strength throughout. Tall and thin as a lance, Alexey Loparevich brought a gentle elegance to the role of the Don, while Alexander Petukhov showed flashes of surprising agility along with comic relief as the paunchy Panza.
But truly, the generations-old Bolshoi tradition was the principal star here. You saw it, for example, in the expressiveness of the Spanish and Gypsy dancers (Anna Antropova all but left scorch marks on the stage after skidding across it in a sizzling emotional frenzy). It is this tradition of taking care with the classics, of the old masters passing on not only technique but also the intricacies of acting and soulful character dancing and crackling castanet-playing, that powers "Don Quixote." Icy precision characterizes so many ballet dancers nowadays -- one thinks of the Kirov's over-processed performances here a month ago. But not at the Bolshoi, where this art form still pulses with a hot, red heart.