When The Australian Ballet concluded their recent free-ticketed event at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Ballet Under the Stars, with an excerpt from their upcoming Rudolf Nureyev directed Don Quixote, it was a delicious taster of what lay on the horizon.
Then, at Wednesday evening’s opening night at the State Theatre, the complete sumptuous banquet of exhilarating dance and entertainment, in all its gloriously depicted settings and lavish theatricality, thoroughly swept its audience to their feet. The company feels to be in superlative shape under Artistic Director David Hallberg.
On a long and evolving road to today’s stage in its current balletic form, Cervantes’ epic early 17th century novel Don Quixote has been politely saluted and drastically overhauled.
The title character’s quest to restore chivalry to a nation seems more like padding for the rocky path to wedding day for two young star-crossed lovers Kitri and Basilio in master choreographer Marius Petipa’s work of 1869 to the blissfully melodic music of Ludwig Minkus.
It’s a work legendary dancer Nureyev knew well, going on to direct a revised production of his first Don Quixote in Vienna in 1966 for The Australian Ballet in 1970.
And, as fate would have it, two years later Nureyev was here in Melbourne, together with Sir Robert Helpmann, in a hangar at Essendon Airport in the midst of a heatwave, making what is now the acclaimed film version of his work.
It is on those cinematic legs that the company’s newly created production comes to spectacular life. It begins with a brief prologue set in Don Quixote’s dimly lit and lofty bed chamber where the ageing nobleman enlists his trusty servant Sancho Panza to accompany him on an adventure to perform feats of chivalry and win the heart of his ideal woman Dulcinea.
Following, in proscenium-filling filmmaking style, a list of credits over prolific illustrator Gustave Doré’s engravings of the story unwind before the final still image of Barry Kay’s original film set fades to reveal Richard Roberts’ meticulously detailed reconstructions.
In this totally immersive and exotic world of southern Spanish and Moorish-influenced Mediterranean seaside life, Kay’s original costumes and film designs are transferred to the stage with exceptional beauty while Jon Buswell’s lighting casts evocative and thoughtful weight throughout.
From go to whoa, Nureyev’s dashing and exuberant choreography impresses its mark with relentless hypnotic pleasure. Incorporating a bevy of quirky characters and plentiful ensemble numbers, his whirlwind of dance demands virtuosity in technique and compelling acting.
The entire company, from the luxury of six exquisite principle dancers down to the hardworking corps de ballet, revelled in the opportunity to showcase their unswerving talent.
The delectable star pairing of Ako Kondo as Kitri and Chengwu Guo as Basilio set a trail of thrilling dance about them. Kondo realised the resourceful Kitri with infinite appeal, displaying a synthesis of power and lightness with technical and artistic assuredness.
On double duty as Dulcinea in Don Quixote’s Act 2 vision scene when Don Quixote dreams of the magical Garden of the Dryads and imagines Kitri as Dulcinea, Kondo’s contrasted, poised and graceful depiction made a sublime highlight.
As Basilio, from toes to fingertips, electricity charged through Guo’s lithe and athletic form in a performance to savour. With an armoury of exciting moves, including perfectly spindled turns and confident leaps, Guo was utterly sensational.
Together, Kondo and Guo shared ample chemistry, with the comic and romantic aspects of their partnership generously acted. Among so many highlights, including Guo’s effortlessly paused high lifts in Act 1, the Act 3 energy, precision and brilliance of the grand pas de deux was simply breathtaking.
In the title role, Adam Bull fit the bill as the willowy, self-righteous nobleman. Timothy Coleman followed up with ample character and joviality as Sancho Panchez, proving to be an easy air-thrown object and having as much fun as possible.
As Kitri’s gold-digging father Lorenzo, Brett Simon fumbled his way along as a towering obstacle to the lovers’ union, comically in cahoots with the preferred match for his daughter, the feathered and flouncy Gamache who Paul Knobloch performed to outlandishly camp heights.
Callum Linnane gave a hot-blooded showing as the bullfighter Espada and Amy Harris swirled with abundant flair as the Street Dancer. Sharni Spencer brought an authoritative elegance to her role as Queen of the Dryads and a special mention goes out to Yuumi Yamada who daintily and eye-catchingly glided en pointe as Cupid.
Adding stunning form and occasional tension as town folk, bullfighters, dryads and friends, the corps de ballet are employed with all manner of intricately choreographed routines.
The dancers excelled, both delivering incredibly teamed synchronicity with pockets of individuality where needed. The resilience and strength of the company beamed.
So too did Minkus’ music – vivaciously orchestrated by John Lanchbery – under new Music Director Jonathan Lo’s expert command. An ebullient sounding Orchestra Victoria must have been having a ball in the pit.
And that is precisely a very good reason to get your hands on a ticket. Cervantes’ novel is one thing. Nureyev’s wildly infectious Don Quixote is another.
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 15 March 2023
Season continues to 25 March 2023
Information and Bookings: www.australianballet.com.au
Don Quixote will also be presented in a live-stream event on Friday 24 March, and on stage at the Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House: 8 – 25 April 2023.
Image: Ako Kono and Chengwu Guo with dancers of The Australian Ballet in Don Quixote – photo by Rainee Lantry
Review: Paul Selar