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Can we ever have too much of a good thing?” The Ballet du Capitole’s Don Q
April 28, 2017
Way down south in a place called Toulouse you will find a Don Q that – as rethought by Kader Belarbi – avoids cliché and vulgarity both in story telling and in movement. The dancing bullfighters, the gypsy maidens, and even the “locals” inhabit their personae with force and finesse, with not an ounce of self-conscious irony, and never look like they feel silly. Liberated from the usual “olé-olé” tourist trinket aesthetic of what “Spanish” Petipa has become, the ballet became authentically engaging. By the end, I yearned to go back to that time when I struggled to learn how to do a proper Hota.
The key to Belarbi’s compact and coherent rethinking of this old chestnut is that he gave himself license to get rid of redundant characters thus giving those remaining more to do. Who needs a third suitor for Kitri’s hand – Gamache – when you can build up a more explicit rivalry just between the Don and Basilio? Who needs a “gypsy queen” in Act II, when Kitri’s girlfriend Mercedes could step in and gain a hot boyfriend on the way? Why not just get rid of the generic toreador and give his steps and profession to Basilio?
This version is not “streamlined” in the sense of starved: this smallish company looked big because all tore into new meat. Even the radiant individuals in the corps convinced me that each one of them thought of themselves as not “second row, third from left” but as “Frasquita” or “Antonio.” Their eyes were always on.
Economy and invention
The biggest shock is the transformation of the role of Don Quixote into a truly physical part. The role is traditionally reduced to such minimal mime you sometimes wonder why not get rid of him entirely? Yet the ballet IS called “Don Quichotte,” after all. Here the titular lead is given to someone who could actually dance Basilio himself, rather than to a beloved but now creaky veteran. This Don is given a ton to act upon including rough pratfalls and serious, repeated, partnering duties...while wearing Frankenstein boots, no less. (Don’t try this at home unless your ankles are really in shape.)
Taking it dead-seriously from the outset, Jackson Carroll’s tendril fingers and broken wrists could have gone camp but the very fit dancer hiding under those crusty layers of Gustave Doré #5 pancake foundation infused his clearly strong arms with equal measures of grace and nuance. His every pantomimed gesture seemed to float on top of the sound – even when trilling harshly through the pages of a tome — as if he were de facto conducting the orchestra. Carroll’s determined tilt of the head and firm jut of chin invited us to join him on his chivalric adventure. His minuet with Kitri, redesigned as an octet with the main characters, shook off the creepy and listless aspect it usually has. Imagine what the dashing Douglas Fairbanks could have brought to Gloria Swanson’s role in Sunset Boulevard. That’s Carroll’s Don Q. Next imagine Oliver Hardy officiating as the butler instead of von Stroheim, and you’ve got Nicolas Rombaut or Amaury Barreras Lapinet as Sancho Panza. Kitri: At my first performance (April 23rd, evening), Natalia de Froberville’s Kitri became a study in how to give steps different inflections and punch. I don’t know why, but I felt as if an ice cream stand had let me taste every flavor in the vats. The dancers Belarbi picks all seem to have a thing for nuance: they are in tune with their bodies they know how to repeat a phrase without resorting to the Xerox machine. So de Froberville could be sharp, she could be slinky, she could be a wisp o’ th’ wind, or a force of nature when releasing full-blown “ballon.” Widely wide échappés à la seconde during the “fanning” variation whirled into perfect and unpretentious passés, confirming her parallel mastery of force and speed.
At my first performance (April 23rd, evening), Natalia de Froberville’s Kitri became a study in how to give steps different inflections and punch. I don’t know why, but I felt as if an ice cream stand had let me taste every flavor in the vats. The dancers Belarbi picks all seem to have a thing for nuance: they are in tune with their bodies they know how to repeat a phrase without resorting to the Xerox machine. So de Froberville could be sharp, she could be slinky, she could be a wisp o’ th’ wind, or a force of nature when releasing full-blown “ballon.” Widely wide échappés à la seconde during the “fanning” variation whirled into perfect and unpretentious passés, confirming her parallel mastery of force and speed.
The Sunday matinée on April 24th brought the farewell of María Gutiérrez, a charming local ballerina who has been breathing life with sweet discretion into every role I’ve seen in since discovering the company four years ago (that means I missed at least another twelve, damn). She’s leaving while she is still in that “sweet spot” where your technique can’t fail but your sense of stagecraft has matured to the point that everything you do just works. The body and the mind are still in such harmony that everything Gutiérrez does feels pure, distilled, opalescent. The elevation is still there, the light uplift of her lines, the strong and meltingly almost boneless footwork. Her quicksilver shoulders and arms remain equally alive to every kind of turn or twist. And all of this physicality serves to delineate a character that continued organically into the grand pas. Typical of this company: during the fouettés, why do fancy-schmancy doubles while changing direction, flailing about, and wobbling downstage when you can just do a perfect extended set of whiplash singles in place? That’s what tricks all about in the first place, aren’t they: to serve the character? Both these women remained in character, simply using the steps to say “I’m good, I’m still me, just having even more fun than you could ever imagine.”
Maria Gutiérrez reçoit la médaille de la ville de Toulouse des mains de Marie Déqué, Conseillère municipale déléguée en charge des Musiques et Déléguée métropolitaine en charge du Théâtre et de l’Orchestre national du Capitole. Crédit photo : Ville de Toulouse
Maybe my only quibble with this re-thought scenario: in order to keep in the stage business of Kitri’s father objecting to her marrying a man with no money, Basilio – so the program says – is only a poor apprentice toreador. Given that Belarbi could well anticipate which dancers he was grooming for the role, this is odd. Um, no way could I tell that either the manly, assured, and richly costumed Norton Fantinel (April 22nd, evening) or equally manly etc. Davit Galstyan (April 23rd, matinée) were supposed to be baby bullfighters. From their very entrances, each clearly demonstrated the self- assurance of a star. Both ardent partners, amusingly and dismissively at ease with the ooh-wow Soviet-style one-handed lifts that dauntingly pepper the choreography, they not only put their partners at ease: they aided and abetted them, making partnership a kind of great heist that should get them both arrested. Stalking about on velvet paws like a young lion ready to start his own pride, Davit Galstyan – he, too, still in that “sweet spot” — took his time to flesh out every big step clearly, paused before gliding into calm and lush endings to each just-so phrase. Galstyan’s dancing remains as polished and powerful as ever. In his bemused mimes of jealousy with Gutiérrez, he made it clear he could not possibly really need to be jealous of anyone else on the planet. Even in turns his face remains infused with alert warmth. Norton Fantinel, like many trained in the Cuban style, can be eagerly uneven and just- this-side of mucho-macho. But he’s working hard on putting a polish on it, trying to stretch out the knees and the thighs and the torso without losing that bounce. His cabrioles to the front were almost too much: legs opening so wide between beats that a bird might be tempted to fly through, and then in a flash his thighs snapped shut like crocodile jaws. He played, like Galstyan, at pausing mid-air or mid-turn. But most of all, he played at being his own Basilio. The audience always applauds tricks, never perfectly timed mime. I hope both the couples heard my little involuntary hees-hees.
Best friend, free spirit, out there dancing away through all three acts. Finally, in Belarbi’s production, Mercedes becomes a character in her own right. Both of her incarnations proved very different indeed. I refuse to choose between Scilla Cattafesta’s warmly sensual, luxuriant – that pliant back! — and kittenish interpretation of the role and that of Lauren Kennedy, who gave a teasingly fierce touch straight out of Argentine tango to her temptress. Both approaches fit the spirit of the thing. As their Gypsy King, the chiseled pure and powerful lines of Philippe Solano and the rounded élan of Minoru Kaneko brought out the best in each girlfriend.
Belarbi’s eye for partnerships is as impressive as his eye for dancers alone: in the awfully difficult duets of the Second-Best-Friends – where you have to do the same steps at the same time side by side or in cannon – Ichika Maruyama and Tiphaine Prévost made it look easy and right. On the music together, arms in synch, even breathing in synch. There is probably nothing more excruciatingly difficult. So much harder than fouétés!
Love the long skirts for the Dream Scene, the idea that Don Q’s Dulcinea fantasy takes place in a swamp rather than in the uptight forest of Sleeping Beauty. The main characters remain easily recognizable. Didn’t miss Little Miss Cupid at all. Did love Juliette Thélin’s take on the sissonne racourci developé à la seconde (sideways jump over an invisible obstacle, land on one foot on bended knee and then try to get back up on that foot and stick the other one out and up. A nightmare if you want to make it graceful). Thélin opted to just follow the rubato of the music: a smallish sissone, a soft plié, a gentle foot that lead to the controlled unrolling of her leg and I just said to myself: finally, it really looks elegant, not like a chore. Lauren Kennedy, in the same role the previous day, got underdone in the later fouéttés à l’italienne at the only time the conductor Koen Kessels wasn’t reactive. He played all her music way too slowly. Not that it was a disaster, no, but little things got harder to do. Lauren Kennedy is fleet of foot and temperament. The company is full of individuals who deserve to be spoiled by the music all the time, which they serve so well.
The Ballet du Capitole continues to surprise and delight me in its fifth year under Kader Belarbi direction. He has taken today’s typical ballet company melting pot of dancers – some are French, a few even born and trained in Toulouse, but more are not –and forged them into a luminously French-inflected troupe. The dancers reflect each other in highly-developed épaulement, tricks delivered with restrained and controlled finishes, a pliant use of relevé, a certain chic. I love it when a company gives off the vibe of being an extended family: distinct individuals who make it clear they belong to the same artistic clan.
The company never stopped projecting a joyful solidarity as it took on the serious fun of this new reading of an old classic. The Orchestre national du Capitole — with its rich woody sound and raucously crisp attack – aided and abetted the dancers’ unified approach to the music. In Toulouse, both the eye and the ear get pampered.
The title is, of course, taken from Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part I, Book I, Chapter 6.