So why do it now? The company is particularly strong at present and had no trouble selecting six leading couples. In its quest to balance the books, it is capitalising on rising attendances. For the financial year which ended in March, audiences rose from 82 to 87 per cent. All the full-length ballets sold out.
The Royal Ballet has opted for Baryshnikov's 1978 version, based on Petipa's 1869 comic original, probably because Anthony Dowell, the director, danced the lead when he was a guest with the American Ballet Theatre, Baryshnikov's company at the time. This version has been described (or condemned?) by Irek Mukhamedov as 'a Hollywood spectacular' while Nureyev's has more dance. Mukhamedov should know. Last month he danced the Nureyev version for the Australian Ballet.
Don Quixote will succeed: it has lots of stars, is undemanding and glamorous, owing its spectacle to Mark Thompson's contemporary sets and luscious costumes. Cervantes' Don Quixote links episodes in the love affair between Basilio (Mukhamedov), a young barber, and Kitri (Viviana Durante), the daughter of an innkeeper, who opposes their union, preferring instead Gamache (Stephen Jefferies), a pompous fop. The story is slight, and so is the choreography, its flashiness lacking the depth of Petipa's later masterpieces, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty.
On Wednesday, the company tried on the new show for size. So intent were the dancers on getting the moves right, they seemed to forget to be the characters. No doubt this will change, as will the slight drop in energy when Basilio and Kitri (Viviana Durante) are not on stage. Bruce Sansom, fiery as the matador, and the spry Nicola Roberts keep the piece swimming. There are one-arm lifts, back bends, jumps, turning circles, but these flash by, flowering into sequences only in the dream and at the wedding. Mukhamedov is flirty, funny, every bit the besotted groom. Durante, like Mukhamedov, is marvellous to watch. She has a sultry smile on her lips but not yet in her eyes. Jefferies, a natural comic, has no need to milk the knockabout bits.
With Don Quixote in its repertoire, the Royal Ballet has been accused of losing its distinctive national flavour, becoming just another international company offering standard fare. It is said to be giving too much attention to 'museum' pieces and not enough to preserving the national heritage, creating and buying in new works. The success of a recent triple bill - Fokine's Firebird, the premiere of David Bintley's Tombeaux, and the relatively new In the middle, somewhat elevated by William Forsythe - shows audiences are ready for new works, but none is being commissioned. There is a dearth of new choreographers within the Royal Ballet, but no shortage outside (the names of Michael Clark, Matthew Bourne and Christopher Bruce spring to mind).
The company disputes all these arguments. It says it can offer the museum pieces, which are good box office, while developing other areas. It recognises new works are the lifeblood of the company, and is buying more Forsythe and La Ronde, a French ballet. Although few of the good British choreographers have created large-scale works, the Royal Ballet is making an unprecedented commitment to developing new choreographers by introducing small-scale tours. The company will take new works on tour. Twelve more dancers will be employed to ensure the Covent Garden performances are not affected by the tours.
The company says the success of the Fokine / Bintley / Forsythe triple bill springs not just from audiences' readiness for new works. Research shows other factors at play: a line-up of stars and the right formulation - a well- known overture, a new work and a big number. The company intends to develop this recipe.
Continues at Covent Garden (071- 240 1066), Tues, Wed, Fri and Sat.