National Ballet of Cuba’s Don Quixote is full of sheer, honest joy
A National Ballet of Cuba production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, February 16. Continues February 17 and 18
The National Ballet of Cuba’s Vancouver debut sparked something rarely, if ever, seen in this town during a dance performance: a spontaneous standing O for prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés’s seemingly endless balancing act on one perfectly arched pink pointe shoe—right in the middle of her pas de deux. When the show did end a while after that, the local crowd jumped to its feet for three curtain calls, complete with whooping.
Valdés and her troupe had won the crowd over with their technical bravado, to be sure, but there was also a contagious sense of sheer, honest joy that seemed to emanate off the stage during the performance of Don Quixote. Displaying an utterly unique mix of Russian technique and Latin spice, the company makes its sky-high jumps with scissoring legs, its flying splits, and its dizzying series of fouettés look as casually effortless as a Sunday stroll along the Malecón. A lot of other classical ballet looks strained, brittle, and, frankly, artificial by comparison.
Then again, the story ballet Don Quixote could not be better suited to the troupe’s strengths. The slapstick humour plays up the company’s warm vibe and the Spanish setting has a nice Latin flavour. As for the politics of the common people trumping the invading noble class? Well, viva la revolución.
Inspired by the 1869 ballet by Marius Petipa and set to Ludwig Minkus’s rollicking score, Don Quixote only loosely follows Cervantes’s wayward knight and his klutzy assistant Sancho Panza—although legendary Cuban choreographer Alicia Alonso does give their characters more heft in her version. The story really centres around Kitri, whose father forbids her from marrying the lowly barber Basilio, instead taking a dowry from the French nobleman Camacho. The young lovers eventually outwit their elders, but really, it’s all an excuse for the grandeur of twirling Gypsy dances, wild displays of balletic bullfighters jetting high through the air, and in the stunning final act, some of the most technically challenging grandstanding you are ever going to see on-stage.
The effortless Valdés is so supple, she can’t help but arc her back into a C when she does her jumping splits, and you won’t believe the killer combinations she pulls off: at one point she hops diagonally across the stage on one toe while executing high kicks. And her winning young Basilio, Osiel Gounod, is her match. The charismatic scene-stealer actually gave the audience a competitive nod after Valdés earned her impromptu standing O—as if to say “You think that was good? Watch me now.” After which he launched into a series of stratospheric leaps. (Do note, though: in an act of sharing the wealth, the company has different stars playing the roles for each Vancouver performance.)
Elsewhere, the sets improve throughout the show, culminating in the third act’s multitiered gilded fabric layers, which almost echo the art nouveau façades of Havana’s Centro district. And the live Vancouver Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Cuba’s Giovanni Duarte, makes the score as swift and light as the corps’s jetés.
Not everything is polished perfection, though. The males in the early group numbers struggled with synchronizing the execution of leaps and turns, and occasionally the costuming looks tired, especially the tawdry pink bows on the town girls in the third act. But then, cold, calculated perfection isn’t really the draw of Cuba’s national pride.
You can excuse the odd slip because the larger picture is so compelling. History itself makes you respond to these supercharged, exuberant dancers. There’s a triumph of the human spirit every time they nail those whipping turns or scissoring leaps. There’s a sense of overcoming, of transcending all the politics, hardship, isolation—whatever you want to call it, it’s impossible not to watch the ballet in a somewhat revolutionary spirit. And, on this night, it had a lot of people saying Cuba, sí.