An Eternal Celebration of Life

Moscow has a special relationship with this ballet. Don Quixote is the only great classical ballet to be born in Moscow, rather than in Paris or Petersburg. Its bubbling torrent of joie de vivre, bold infringement of the canons, impulsive temperament and infinitely complex technique make it a model of the “Moscow style”. Balletomanes describe DQ as the visiting card of the Moscow school of ballet. In the course of 140 years, it has been presented at the Bolshoi Theatre nearly one thousand times.

“The hot-blooded, passionate children of happy Andalusia are carried away by their national dances to the point of madness, till they drop, they are incapable of standing or sitting still when these extremely bravura dances reach a crescendo... Shouts, screams, laughter, the throwing of cloaks under the dancers’feet – and everyday life with its trials and tribulations is forgotten: the crowd has but one cult... passion”, wrote Petipa whose love for Spain did not dim even at the age of 85.

The pretext for recreating this southern ecstasy in snowy Moscow was Cervantes’ novel. But those who had expected “a serious dramatic ballet” from Petipa were to be disappointed. The chief characters of Petipa’s Don Quixote were Kitri (Kiteria) and Basil (Basilio), the heroes of one of the novellas in the novel. Their hard-won happiness achieved through eloping, cunning and disguise was to be transformed into the most famous of comic ballets. Theballetomanes who attended the première on 14 December 1869 had no complaints that the ballet was too far removed from its original source: ballet at that time was regarded purely as visual entertainment.

“Without boasting, I can say that I danced and played the castanets no worse than the leading dancers of Andalusia”, Petipa recalled towards the end of his life. He invested Don Quixote with his adoration of Spanish dances, constructing the whole ballet from folk dances – the jota, morena, zingara, lola, from the dances of the picadors, the Spanish pea slants and the toreadors.

Ekaterina Krysanova as Kitri, Semyon Chudin as Basilio. Photo by Damir Yusupov.

Two years later, the thrifty ballet master transferred Don Quixote, which had been successful in Moscow, to Petersburg’s Bolshoi Theatre. True, in order to do so, he had to make major alterations to the ballet: character dances were not approved of in the capital, and any self-respecting prima had first and foremost to demonstrate the marvels of classical technique. For this reason, the composer of bland balmusic and Petipa’s constant collaborator, Ludvig Minkus, was forced to write a fifth, classical act for the new production. It was in this form, that Petipa’s ballet acquired the status of a classic.

One can imagine the autocrat of Russian ballet’s fury when, in 1900, Aleksander Gorsky – boy dispatched to Moscow to bring local balletomanes joy by reviving Petipa’s ballets, had the effrontery to do his own version of Don Quixote!

Deciding against major changes in Don Quixote’s undistinguished libretto and its music, Gorsky tried to give the ballet a logical coherence. He did away virtually altogether with classical dance. Apart from there being few “pointes”, the choreographer totally broke the classical geometry saying “...with me they dance one thing to the right, another – to the left and upstage – a third”. In order to achieve the impression of a lively, emotional crowd, Gorsky worked with each dancer in the corps de ballet, creating an individual design for the existence on stage of each of its members.

Due to the initiative of Vladimir Telyakovsky, the director of the Moscow Office of the Imperial Theatres’ Directorate, Gorsky’s co-workers on the production were two young artists: Aleksander Golovin and Konstantin Korovin. A sun-baked, yellowish-black-red Barcelona, which had nothing in common with the usual stock Spanish scene in theatre, made an ideal setting for Gorsky’s heroes.

The new Don Quixote came as a shock to Moscovites. “Decadence and ignorance on an exemplary stage”, was one indignant comment in the press. Newspaper critics, appealing to the great ballet names of the past in support of their negative reviews, failed to grasp that in was this production of Don Quixote that would become the standard version for Russian ballet. Remaining in the Bolshoi Theatre repertory till 1935, it was given 255 performances. Since that time, Don Quixote has been repeatedly revived and re-produced…

Anna Galayda
from the ballet handbook

Alexei Fadeyechev, producer (2016):

I came to appreciate and, I believe, to understand those undoubted qualities of Ludwig Minkus’ Don Quixote that have won for it a permanent niche in the repertoires of the world’s leading ballet companies. Don Quixote is a true celebration of classical dance in all its forms: Grand Pas, Pas d’Action, Pas de Deux, character dances to all tastes brilliantly choreographed by Marius Petipa and Aleksander Gorsky to the delight of soloists and public alike.

This is a ballet that requires true virtuosity, an understanding and awareness of the stylistic subtleties of Russian ballet, acting talent, and maximum professionalism from every dancer. The ballet company that gives a good performance of Don Quixote has the right to dance almost everything.

Don Quixote is Marius Petipa’s and Aleksander Gorsky’s most ‘Moscovian’ ballet. Not only because the ballet had its premiere in Moscow (in 1869 – Marius Petipa’s production and in 1900 – Aleksander Gorsky’s production), but, above all, because of its carefree boisterousness, sense of play and improvised freedom, which are characteristic of the Moscow school and Bolshoi Theatre dancers. It is far from fortuitous that the Bolshoi Theatre’s Don Quixote is looked on as the standard version of this ballet and that the choreographic text of our production has done the rounds of the world. The democratic element in Don Quixote is surprisingly in keeping with today ballet.

My work on the revival of the production was based on the conviction that the choreographic and dramaturgical perfection of Don Quixote required no correction or reworking. To create a version free of the later incrustations was all that was needed. Our goal was to be faithful to the spirit of Marius Petipa and Aleksander Gorsky.