Review: Don Quixote

by Jane

In just an absolute credit to this company and this production, when I left all I wanted to do (after 1. Go back for acts 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, and 2. Figure out how to break into the after party – needless to say, neither plan came to fruition) was to go and write about it.  And then when I started to write, I wrote 600 words in the blink of an eye, and still felt the absolute need to come back the next day and write more.  I don’t remember the last time I feel such an absolute positive crave to review.  Thank you.

The Australian Ballet presents The Dancers Company
Don Quixote
Brenton Langbein Theatre, Tanunda 31/07/10

The Dancers Company is the regional touring arm of the Australian Ballet, and this year’s tour of Don Quixote marks the 30thanniversary of the company.  Comprised of 26 students in their final years at the Australian Ballet School along with guest artists from the ballet itself, the company is much more than just a student production or graduate showcase.  To begin with, the students are contracted to the tour, and are paid as professional dancers.   The tour gives students an invaluable experience in working for a company and touring, and being exclusively regional, it gives audiences which are otherwise unlikely to see the ballet an opportunity.  (Even if, I’m guessing a not insignificant number of audience members at the Tununda performance were people who drove up from the city for the event.)

Dana Stephensen with company members. Photography by Jim McFarlane.

Because of this, a ballet like Don Quixote is perfect for the Dancers Company: it has lots of individual characters, medium sized groups, and pieces for the whole company.  And as well as being a beautiful ballet choreographically, the structure of the story leads for much acting on behalf of all performers, and the company amply rises to the occasion.

Daniel Gaudiello, a Senior Artist in the Ballet Company, in the male lead of Basilio exudes a sexy cockiness, which in lesser hands could come off as an annoying arrogance, but with Gaudiello’s charm and talent on the stage, it feels like he is only half as cocky as he could be.   Gaudiello is physically a very strong dancer: his lithe frame defies belief when he throws Dana Stephensen in the air, making her appear no heavier than a paper bag.  Don Q is a great jumping ballet for men, and Gaudiello is built for the part: he appears to not only defy gravity, but laugh in its face in his allegro.   I think I can safely say he had every woman (and many men) in the audience swooning, and he completely dissipated any remaining Cabaret Festival-crushes I have been harbouring.

Stephensen is a delight in the role of Kitri.  She plays the role with strength and sass: even though she is fighting her father over the man she can date, you never believe this is a character who won’t get exactly what she wants.  A Coryphée in the Australian Ballet Company, Stephensen has this year been nominated for the Telstra Ballet Dancer of the Year – vote for your favourite here – and it isn’t hard to see why.  In addition to the beautiful personality that shines through her character Kitri, Stephensen’s strength as a dancer are truly given a chance to shine in turns, and in grand jétes where she appears to float above the stage.

Together, Gaudiello and Stephensen make a wonderful pair: as brilliantly paired dancers, but more so as wonderful actors, whose characters show an exuberance and energy in their love for each other, which is a beautiful thing to watch.   Through this exuberance in the couple, and choreography by Ai-Gul Gaisina (after Marius Petipa), this ballet manages moments of humour which don’t come from high camp (something I criticised in my review of The Silver Rose), but come from beautifully scripted moments of love.  That doesn’t mean this ballet steers away from the camp: it has perhaps the gayest “straight” character in a ballet ever.  And by gayest, I mean Gramache, as played by Garry Stocks, is the most flamingly-homosexual-has-never-been-in-love-with-a-woman-ever-is-clearly-just-in-love-with-Basilio character to appear on stage ever.  I think it would improve the ballet insurmountably if the ballet ended with a second wedding between Gramache and Don Q (the very funny Simon Dow).

Yeah. Completely straight, I'm sure. Garry Stocks as Gramache, photograph by Jim McFarlane.

And if those two got together, it would make the title make at least a little more sense:  Don Quixote is perhaps the strangest name you could give to this ballet, for the titular character is largely incidental to the story.  In fact, you could remove his character completely, and have to make very few adjustments to anything.   At most, he leads to the Act Two dream sequence, but like all contrived ballet dream sequences, it could come from anyone.  I haven’t read Miguel de Carvantes’ novel, so I don’t know how much of the ballet plot is lifted from his novel, but it is very odd realising how little involvement Don Q has in the ballet.

Like I said earlier, this isn’t just a ballet for the two stars, and Gaisina’s choreography gives the student members of the company their chance to shine in a technically demanding choreography.  There were several artists that particularly stood out. Hannah O’Neill is commanding in her role as the Dryad Queen, performing a simply wonderful grand fouttée en tournant.  The tiny Sakura Sakamoto as Cupid dances with a deft lightness and quickness on her feet.  Jade Wood and Brote Kelly both show beautiful extension as the Girlfriends, and in particular Kelly’s smile lights up the stage like she is having the time of her life.

Bronte Kelly, Dana Stephensen, and Alexis-Bledel-look-alike Jade Wood. Photograph by Jim McFarlane

It is perhaps unfortunate Gaudiello is so outstanding, as you are left almost without a chance to admire the other men of the company.   They get their best moment to shine in the exciting choreography of the Gypsy Men, where Geoffrey Watson stands out for the vitality and joy he brings.

Of the rest of the company, there is not a weak link.  The quality of Australia’s future ballet stars is assured in this group.   They’re not yet the standard of the Australian Ballet Company, but for a collection of dancers who are probably aged from 17-19, they are outstanding.

Some sound issues from the speakers were present in the first act, with horns sounding tinny and some white noise surrounding the strings, but this was clearly worked on during the interval, and I had no sound complaints for the rest of the performance.

Set and lighting by Francis Croese (who also appears as Lorenzo in the ballet) and Scott Mathewson are simple, to allow the company to quickly move into their spaces, and costumes are borrowed from the main company.   While sets are simple, consisting primarily of painted backdrops, this simplicity means the dancers get a chance to shine, and the costumes give a lushness to the production.

The stage at the Brenton Langnein Theatre is very wide, and very narrow – as is typical for school stages, allowing as many children as possible to perform in the front row: you can’t upset the parents with their child in the back! – and for the most part the company perform exceedingly well in such a narrow space.  With my seat towards the edge of the even wider auditorium, there were some minor issues with masking and occasionally being able to peer at people waiting in the wings, but the company are to be highly commended for their ability to adapt and perform in what I am sure is a wide variety of stage shapes.

A pity none of the photos truly captured the connection between these two. Dana Stephensen and Daniel Gaudiello, photograph by Jim McFarlane

This was my first trip to see the Dancers Company, and I am surprised it took me this long.  Now, you won’t be able to keep me away the next time they are this close to Adelaide.  It was truly a treat seeing such a joyous ballet performed with such enthusiasm and young skill.  I left feeling absolutely elated, and so excited to see where the artists will move on to next.

The Dancers Company concludes their 2010 tour of Don Quixote with performances in Port Pirie, Whyalla, Kalgoorie, Geraldton, Mandurah, and Bunbury, with guest artists Yosvani Ramos and Kristy Corea in the roles of Basilio and Kitri.  More information, including booking information, can be found here.