Review: ‘Don Quixote’ by Ballet Nacional de Cuba at the Kennedy Center

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With apologies to T.S. Elliot, Ballet Nacional de Cuba ends the Kennedy Center Ballet 2017-2018 season not with a whimper but a bang. A big bang!

An explosive Don Quixote opened last night and repeats only tonight. The rest of the company’s too-short engagement is dedicated to Giselle, the ultimate romantic ballet, at the Center’s Opera House Friday through Sunday.

As a bonus, the company’s Artistic Director, Alicia Alonso, one of the world’s foremost prima ballerinas, returned to Washington after a long hiatus. For last night’s appreciative audience, it was a joyful moment to watch the 97-year-old Cuban legend take her well-deserved bow. For this writer, who had the privilege of reviewing Alonso’s performance of Giselle in 1978, it brought back a flood of memories, many from Cuba where I traveled with the Washington Ballet almost 20 years ago.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba Artistic Director Alicia Alonso with Premier dancers Viengsay Valdés and Dani Hernández_ Opening Night of Don Quixote at the Kennedy Center as part of Artes de Cuba_Ballet Nacional de Cuba_Photo by Teresa Wood
Ballet Nacional de Cuba Artistic Director Alicia Alonso with Premier Dancers Viengsay Valdés and Dani Hernández at Opening Night of Don Quixote at the Kennedy Center as part of Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Standing with the crowd outside the Teatro Mella in Havana in 2000 wasn’t so different from a Nats game. Folks young and old roared and squealed with pleasure when the stars of the evening passed through the barricades erected for the International Ballet Festival.

In this case, the ones getting most enthusiastic reception were the dancers. Only Alicia Alonso inspired louder and longer cheering. Inside the theater fans doubled-up in the aisles and grabbed any available seat for what seemed to rival baseball as the national pastime.

These were my thoughts last night as I watched Don Quixote, an old ballet made modern and fun, yet still true to its original Russian roots but flavored by Alonso’s Latin American sass. Giovanni Duarte conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra with a zest and vitality honed from his Havana musical heritage. And we left humming the gorgeous music from the Ludwig Minkus score.

Alonso created this Don Quixote, a restaging and reworking of the classic originally created by Marius Petipa in 1869 and revised by Alexander Gorsky at the turn of the century, to bolster the company’s Iberian language and culture. She also wanted this version to be quick and sprightly and capture (and hold) the attention of American audiences.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba Artistic Director Alicia Alonso at Opening Night of Don Quixote at the Kennedy Center as part of Artes de Cuba Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Ballet Nacional de Cuba Artistic Director Alicia Alonso at Opening Night of Don Quixote at the Kennedy Center as part of Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Indeed it does. And it was a nice touch to include a video montage of Alonso before the curtain rose on the ballet’s prelude. We stood and faced backwards towards the Presidential box where the dance doyenne acknowledged the applause and graced us with a gesture of “Let’s Dance.”

Translating a literary classic into a ballet can be tricky, but Cervantes’ epic novel with tales of heroism, romance, and, especially, illusion makes for a meaty full-length ballet. Salvador Fernandez created the Libretto, scenery, and costumes, while Marta Garcia and Maria Elena Llorente added choreography to the three-act ballet with two additional downstage settings.

Still, it was the dancing that folks came to see – many who immediately recognized Viengsay Valdés and Dani Hernández the moment they entered the stage in a dazzling leap and flip of her fan. The two Premier Danseurs performed the lead roles of Kitri, the pretty innkeeper’s daughter whose father wants her to marry a rich landowner, and Basilio, a poor barber.

The smiling Valdés conveyed an instantly likable Kitri from her first Grand Jete, almost sitting in the air as the crowd gasped. Last night’s audience was ready for razor-sharp footwork, and we weren’t disappointed with her speed and daring. Add to that her feisty feministic touches – she is a mighty warrior throughout the ballet.

Hernández charmed us in the town center where Basilio and Kitri establish their teasing, taunting relationship. He woos her with his guitar-playing and sensitive partnering, though Kitri’s father and her suitor spoil their intimacy. These scenes were performed with wit and good timing by the company’s Character Premieres Danseurs Ernesto Diaz and Felix Rodriquez, who danced the roles of Lorenzo and Camacho.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba_ Premier dancers Viengsay Valdés as Kitri and Dani Hernández as Basilio_ Don Quixote_Photo by Teresa Wood
Ballet Nacional de Cuba Premier Dancers Viengsay Valdés as Kitri and Dani Hernández as Basilio in Don Quixote. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Act one is really an excuse for dancing. A spirited folk dance from the corps leads into a fiery matador’s dance and a street dancer’s solo. Ginett Moncho soared as Mercedes, the bullfighter’s lover. As Graciosa, the Gypsy chief’s daughter, Ely Regina made her mark early on. As did the soldiers and gypsy couples, and, among others, Claudia Garcia as Queen of the Dryads.

Alonso’s choreographic touches – or perhaps Garcia and Llorente had their influence – include macho Matadors, led by Ariel Martínez, who reminded this writer of another Cuban ballet star, Carlos Acosta, last seen with England’s Royal Ballet. Young Ariel’s take on the bullfighter was over the top with bravura ballet steps rarely seen on a stage. If he could tame his technique a bit and smile more…well, that’s another story.

The tale of this Don Q, as it is known in the ballet world, is really not about the Don at all. Along with his pal, the two wander as symbols of hope and comedy. Yansiel Pujada played the errant knight as a poetic dreamer and Dairon Darias charmed us with his pranks and outstanding athletic tricks.

Everyone in the village – a setting that looks like more like Havana today than the previous old Spanish cities in other productions – celebrates love and marriage in the third act finale, the same pas de deux that Alicia Alonso once danced all over the world.

Running Time: Almost three hours, with two 20-minute intermissions.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs in the Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World celebration through Sunday afternoon in the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or go online.