Don Quixote, Maison de la Danse, Lyon

Few would look at Marius Petipa’s Don Quixote, a staple of the Russian repertoire, as an example of cogent ballet plot. For a start, it doesn’t tell the story of Miguel de Cervantes’ Quixote, who merely wanders in the background – the real heroes are two young lovers, Kitri and Basilio, and the only cliffhanger (will her father allow them to get married?) is just an excuse for entertaining ballet antics.

On the whole, it doesn’t lend itself to a dramatic facelift, but Boris Eifman nonetheless set out to make his own version in 1996. This bad boy of Russian ballet’s preoccupation with dark, anguished psyches finds a natural echo in the title character, but the resulting production, original and irreverential as it may be, is ultimately let down by its choreography.

Eifman’s reputation for theatrical gusto holds true in the first act, set in an asylum, where a delusional Don Quixote is surrounded by kooky inmates. Watched over by a domineering Doctor (Anastasia Sitnikova, captivatingly haughty), they turn to the haunted Quixote for escape, and he gives them the gift of imagination, conjuring up Petipa’s colourful Barcelona square.

Kitri and her friends surge through the drab world of the asylum like rays of light, dancing a shortcut version of the original ballet. The sunny, virtuosic set pieces Eifman keeps make for fine contrast with the inmates’ light-hearted parody of ballet steps, from a cancan version of Swan Lake’s cygnets to their enthusiastic impression of toreros.

Here the production goes straight to the point: what Don Quixote provides is fantasy and solace in a nonsensical world, for the characters and for the audience.

Eifman, however, loses sight of his own plot after the interval and, having done away with Petipa’s choreography, falls back on sensationalistic tricks to keep up the pace. Don Quixote leaves behind the asylum and somehow ends up in what must be the local brothel – there he meets a girl ironically named Dulcinea, whose life seems to consist in being flung around by men, and leaves with her to attend a cruder version of Kitri and Basilio’s traditional wedding.

The choreography throughout is ballet for the pop age: relentless, easy on the eye, punctuated by wild splits and perilous lifts. Even Eifman’s mix-and-match approach to Ludwig Minkus’ tuneful score, appealingly whimsical early on when Kitri’s farcical suitor dances to Cupid’s variation, grows ludicrous in its lack of musicality.

The choreographer’s repertoire remains worth exploring for his dancers only. The 60-strong company, founded in 1977, combines impeccable Russian schooling with a bold, contemporary dramatic flair uncommon in St Petersburg. Sergey Volobuev in particular brings more depth to Don Quixote than the choreography probably had planned, while Natalia Matsak provides welcome classical relief as Kitri – a fine performance, though one underlining the contradictions of the production.

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