Sofia National Ballet dances Don Quixote
A little passion and wild abandon can go a long way — as Sofia National Ballet dancers illustrate in their vibrant interpretation of Don Quixote.
Despite being an unknown entity (this month marks the Bulgarian company’s very first visit to the UK) the auditorium at Milton Keynes Theatre was almost full on Monday evening for Giselle and theatregoers were equally keen to see some Spanish flair last night.
The dancers of Sofia National Ballet did not disappoint. Explosive balletic fireworks lit up the stage in the well-paced narrative piece, inspired by one of the tales in Miguel de Cervantes’ epic novel (published in 1605). The ballet is loosely based on characters featured in the book, with the most successful version created by 19th Century Russian choreographer Marius Petipa. As a production, the spectacle is part pantomime, part drama-comedy but remains a pastiche to the novel, rather than a parody.
The title character, Don Quixote, is an ageing nobleman who fancies himself a knight and is obsessed with tales of ancient rivalry, chivalry and romance. The lady of his dreams is the imagined Dulcinea. Don Quixote sets off — along with loyal servant Sancho Panza — to find her and bring glory to his name.
Kiril Ivanov and Georgi Asparuhov (as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, respectively) succeed in playing their roles for laughs, without over-egging the comedy. Ivanov makes his Don Quixote suitably eccentric but retains a courteous reserve appropriate for a character that does, after all, play second fiddle to the real stars of the ballet, young lovers Kitri and Basilio. Their forbidden love is central to the plot, running parallel to Don Quixote’s search for his muse.
The Sofia National Ballet production of Don Quixote begins in a busy market square in Barcelona. Beautiful and playful Kitri — the daughter of an innkeeper — flirts with Basilio (Basil) – the barber – who is passionately in love with her. Spanish passion ignites as Ludwig Minkus’ score, which is beautifully played by the Orchestra of Sofia National Ballet under the direction of conductor Grigor Palikaroff, builds pace.
Rhythmic beats are accompanied by specific hand positioning and rapid arm movements while the corps de ballet swish their skirts and flutter fans in colourful ensemble dances. Matadors storm the square and the villagers click their fingers, beat tambourines and play castanets whenever Kitri takes centre stage. There is no question that this scene — indeed the ballet itself — is decidedly Spanish flavoured.
The simple fan is an age-old accessory in warmer climes, used both to beat the heat and communicate furtive love messages. Sofia National Ballet dancer Marta Petkova as Kitri uses the prop as if it is an extension of her arm in her solo variation. Seductive, saucy but still somehow sweet, this señorita exploits exquisite épaulement (shoulder positioning) and expressive arms to capture the Spanish style. With confident technique, impressively quick and clean turns and splendid leaps, Petkova is both engaging and exciting to watch.
Kitri’s father, Lorenzo, disapproves of Basil – a poor barber is no fit match for his daughter. Lorenzo’s intention is that Kitri will marry Gamache, a rich but unappealing nobleman (Elenko Ivanov minces around in a garish green costume as the flashy suitor, raising guffaws of laughter from the audience). Sensibly, Kitri refuses to follow her father’s plan.
Don Quixote enters the square, accompanied by Sancho Panza, and is struck by Kitri’s beauty. He believes she is his muse – the charming Dulcinea of his dreams.
Kitri and Basil flee from Lorenzo and Gamache but accidentally walk into a gypsy camp, located near a bank of windmills, where travellers are cavorting. Don Quixote is hot on their heels and soon appears in pursuit of Kitri. Overwhelmed, Don Quixote mistakes a windmill for a giant and lunges towards it with his sword. Incidentally, the English idiom “tilting at windmills” — which means attacking imaginary enemies — derives from this episode in Cervantes’ novel. Don Quixote misinterprets the situation and sees the windmill blades as the giant’s arms, incorrectly perceiving an adversary where none exists.
The befuddled and now wounded Don Quixote, falls into a deep slumber, dreaming of the realm of the Dryads. In a beautifully danced dream sequence we see Kitri as the image of the gorgeous goddess Dulcinea, surrounded by tutu-clad fairies. Undoubtedly, it is the mixture of traditional Spanish attire, gypsy garbs and classical tutus that makes Don Quixote so aesthetically appealing and Tsvetanka Petkova-Stoyanova’s opulent costumes are all stunning.
The classical vision interlude proves dreamy to watch, showcasing the ability of Sofia National Ballet’s finest female dancers. It is worth noting that the Company is not uniform with regards to body aesthetic. Among both the male and female dancers there is significant variation in height and body shape. While this could be visually distracting, the dynamic performances and generally strong technique demonstrated in this performance ensured the company worked in unison.
Back to reality and Kitri, Basil and Don Quixote return to Lorenzo’s inn where Lorenzo is adamant that Kitri should marry Gamache. Outraged, Basil threatens to kill himself if they are forced apart. He pretends to commit suicide as Kitri begs Don Quixote to persuade her father to meet the last request of the dying Basil — to bless their love. Under duress, Lorenzo eventually grants his consent to marriage — and Basil jumps to his feet.
At the celebratory marriage of Kitri and Basil, Don Quixote takes his place among the wedding guests. He has not found Dulcinea but he has saved Kitri and united her with her sweetheart — true love has prevailed.
The wedding grand pas de deux is a duet between Kitri and Basil of great technical bravura. Principal Nikola Hadjitanev attacked the virtuoso role of Basil with enthusiastic energy, delivering choreographic tricks aplenty and skilful partnering. Fleetingly, it seemed as if the odd solo jump had more likelihood of ending in catastrophe than triumph. Fortunately, he was able to prevent any mishaps. The infectious joy the couple conveyed and the way Hadjitanev threw Petkova into the air and swung her into a fish-dive lift more than made up for these split seconds of unease.
Overall, Sofia National Ballet provided an evening full of Spanish flamboyance, earning cheers from the audience with a feisty, funny and thoroughly entertaining narrative ballet.
Georgina Butler is a journalist, a dance writer and a dance teacher who specialises in teaching classical ballet. She previews and reviews productions, writes features and interviews people from the world of dance.