Bolshoi's Don Quixote - Best Show in Town

Don Quixote has long been considered the Bolshoi Ballet's house special and touring warhorse. Wherever they go, audiences go crazy over the Bolshoi's boisterous, happy, busy depiction of a Spanish fairyland. The curtain rose tonight at the Koch Theater and the effect was the same -- the audience was bombarded with sashaying skirts, rustling maracas, banging tambourines, swaying fans, swinging capes, and the happy reaction said "Ah, so fun."
But there's a method to this choreographed joy -- the Bolshoi has over 200 dancers, and many of them specialize in character dancing. That's why they can have rows and rows of dancers who don't even look like ballet dancers, but rather like folk dancers, with the emphasis on lower body strength, back flexibility, and dancing on the downbeat. These dancers will never get to dance Aurora or Odette/Odile. So Don Quixote is their chance to shine, and they grab the spotlight and never let it go. You can see the hunger in their eyes. It's exhilarating. Equally exhilarating are the character dance soloists -- the Spanish dancer (Maria Zharkova), the Bolero couple (Anna Antropova, Vitaly Biktimirov), the Gypsy dancer (Kristina Karasyova). Their solos are short, but do they know how to sell it! The women seem to have jelly spines, and their long skirts become almost like musical instruments as they sashay and shimmy and dance their hearts out.

It takes super-strong soloists in the lead roles to not get over-shadowed by the wonderful character dancers. The Bolshoi has been famous for its Kitris -- Maya Plisetskaya, Ekaterina Maximova, Nina Ananiashvilli, Natalia Osipova are just a few of legendary names. Tonight's Kitri, Maria Alexandrova, is coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon and as much as I'd like to report that she's rebounded from her injury completely, there were a lot of moments when her Kitri seemed weak. For one, her once buoyant jump is gone -- the grand jetes are now low to the ground and heavy. In the famous Kitri Act One variation, she didn't even attempt the famous Plisetskaya head kick, and also had trouble traveling on the diagonal. Her Italian fouettes in the Vision scene were also effortful. In the final grand pas de deux her balances were shorter, and her variation with its rapid passé and relevé sequence seemed again heavy and leaden. She did finish her fouetté sequence with some very fast singles. Alexandrova's still a solid, likable dancer, but she's no longer the whiz-bang that this role requires. I also wish her upper body weren't so stiff -- she now dances with a tenseness around her arms, neck, and shoulders that is distracting.

Thankfully, her Basilio, Vladislav Lanatrov, added the sparkle and joy to Alexandrova's Kitri. She might not be able to do all the tricks that other Kitris can pull off, but her rapport with Lanatrov was wonderful. If she couldn't wow the audience herself, as a couple they could wow the audience. Lanatrov picked her up in two thrilling one-handed lifts, the second prolonged as the corps banged their tambourines longer and longer. Lanatrov's solos were also very fine, if occasionally sloppy in form. I've seen cleaner double assembles and split leaps, but Lanatrov had a real charming personality. The only time his partnering failed him was in the wedding pas de deux, there were a few pirouette/lunges that looked shaky.

The rest of the soloists showed that the Bolshoi, despite its quirks, is a company with real depth. The variations were cast from strength. Kitri's friends at the wedding danced two splashy variations -- Maria Vinogradova was notably stronger than Ana Turazshvili, but both showed great promise. Denis Rodkin (Espada) didn't do as much with his back I would have hoped but Anna Tikhomirova was thrilling as the Street Dancer. She looked like a Kitri in waiting. Yulia Lunkina wasn't that memorable as Cupid. Oxana Sharova sizzled as Mercedes.

Olga Smirnova (Queen of the Dryads) is the big It Girl of the tour. I missed her Swan Lakes last week, but I did see her Nikya when she guested with the ABT. It's easy to understand why Smirnova has a following -- she's one of the most physically exquisite dancers I've ever seen. She looks like the ideal ballerina, with her raven hair, china doll face, and beautifully tapered legs and feet. So I hate to sound sour but I think she's one of those ballerinas who might be too aware of her own beauty. Her Dryad solo was beautiful and pristine, but also contained a lot of mannered "now you may admire the exquisite tilt of my neck" posing. It's impressive, but too calculated by half. I just want her to really dance. The only thing I don't like about the Bolshoi's Don Q is the Dryad variation -- I prefer the developpe/Italian fouette variation that the Mariinsky/ABT does. The Vision Scene corps were beautiful.

But all the little complaints that one could have for this performance pale with all the strengths the Bolshoi displays in this ballet. Simply put, there's no company that dances with such raw energy and power. Don Quixote and Sancho may be only walk-on characters in this ballet, but the Bolshoi does capture the fiery spirit and earthiness of Cervantes' Spain. It's a joy to watch.


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