If you want virtuosity, there’s only one place to be in London right now, and that’s watching the Mikhailovsky’s fine production of that demented old warhorse, Don Quixote, with Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in the leads.
Don Quixote is one of the 19th-century’s pastiche pleasures, half-pantomime, half-burlesque, all razzmatazz. Choreographed by a Russian (actually, over time, six Russians), set in a Spain that never was, with music by an Austro-Hungarian, the last thing the ballet is is coherent. Instead one tiny episode from the original Cervantes novel, the story of a barber and his love, is blown up to take over the evening, and every now and again, seemingly on a whim, the Don and Sancho Panza wander through.
The famous pas de deux, often danced as a gala piece on its own, is from the last act, and is the culmination of a series of virtuosic show-stoppers, each more staggering than the next. Vasiliev’s macho little bantam-rooster of a performance makes short work of some amazing leaps; Osipova, a famous turner, brings the house down with an equally astonishing series of fouettés. But what makes them artists, rather than merely gymnasts, is that every linking section was taken equally seriously. The blistering ferocity of Vasiliev’s jetés, the dazzling light speed of Osipova’s chainé turns – the bits where they could have taken a breather, but didn’t – are what make them special.
Mikhail Messerer, the company’s ballet master, is also a master of revival, and has sympathetically staged several of the classics for this company. Don Q is not easy to get right. Treat it as opera buffo without the singing, and you’ve killed the humour; concentrate too much on the dance episodes and the story fragments. Messerer has judged the tempo to perfection, allowing us a bit of a romp here, a taste of character-dancing there, and showcased the company’s superstars without allowing their virtuosity to overshadow the other company members’ very real talents.
For equally delightful is Alexander Omar’s gypsy king, Veronica Ignatyeva’s Cupid, and, especially, Ekaterina Borchenko’s Queen of the Dryads, her long, elegant legs and beautiful line a perfect foil for the bouncy little Osipova. The company moved smoothly between the demi-charactère of the Spanish acts, the classical rigour of the vision scene, and the courtly world of the last act, no easy transitions to make. In this they were aided by Pavel Bubelnikov, the conductor and musical director, who oversaw a committed performance of what is, it must be confessed, a pretty ropey score.
Messerer has also added some original and interesting elements, such as the children’s puppet show that mimes the story of the Don’s quest for Dulcinea, in brusque marionette tempo and silvery-white costume, an appropriately ghostly moment among the teeth, eyebrows and tambourines that flash and dazzle for the rest of the evening.