If only all recovered works were masterpieces. This Don Quixote, perhaps George Balanchine's strangest ballet, returns to the stage after long neglect. Suzanne Farrell's careful production shows us another side of the 20th century's greatest choreographer, and I wish I could welcome it. Yet historical curiosity won't keep a work alive in the theatre. Balanchine's choreography is dragged down by ugly music, choked with self-pity.
This 1965 version has nothing to do with ballet's other Don Q, a jolly 19th-century romp in which Cervantes's hero is sidelined by bravura displays of technique. Balanchine puts the elderly knight at the centre of his ballet, emphasising his love for Dulcinea, his ideal woman. The story has echoes in the choreographer's own life: he was inspired by his ballerinas, marrying four of them. In 1965, he cast the 19-year-old Suzanne Farrell, who was to be one of his greatest muses, as Dulcinea. On the first night, he himself danced Don Quixote. The ballet was a turning-point in their relationship.
Despite the radiant young Farrell, and Balanchine's subsequent revisions, the ballet was never much liked. This revival, a co-production between the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, makes it easy to see why. Unusually for Balanchine, this is a three-act story ballet. Most of his works are about music and dancing, often discarding narrative and using the simplest scenery and costumes.
Instead, Don Quixote is long and elaborate, with a real horse, onstage windmill and puppet theatre, mime scenes and processions. Zack Brown's sets are handsome, though Holly Hynes's costumes are more variable. With all this expense, there's no sense of lavishness. The mood is bleak throughout.
Nicolas Nabokov's dreary score undermines the ballet at every stage. His music plunges from would-be modern dissonance to listless schmaltz, lacking energy and dance rhythms. That puppet theatre, a show that so excites Don Quixote that he rushes in to save its heroine, should be delightful. The puppets are played by small children; when they jump, adult dancers (concealed behind a curtain) lift them high into the air.
The details are enchanting, but Nabokov's grinding dullness makes it hard to care. It isn't all the composer's fault. Balanchine has a dismayingly gloomy idea of his hero. This Don Quixote isn't an enthusiast, misunderstanding the world and tilting at windmills. Cervantes's hero comes to grief because he wants the world to follow the conventions of chivalric romance.
Balanchine's is beaten up, without reason, by the people he tries to help. Instead of ardour, we get passivity and martyrdom. Balanchine underlines his hero's suffering with slabs of Christian symbolism. In her first appearance, Dulcinea washes Don Quixote's feet and dries them with her hair, before reappearing in a hideous halo headdress, with little crosses.
Grim mime scenes dominate the ballet. Its strongest scene comes in the last act, with Don Quixote's long vision of Dulcinea. This is almost a self-contained ballet, with winding corps groupings and well-crafted variations. In the long solo for Dulcinea, Balanchine developed the style that would characterise Farrell: her sense of risk, of off-balance daring, here with a sense of yearning vulnerability. Farrell's dancers rise to the occasion, dancing with greater bite throughout this scene.
Heather Ogden is a straightforward Dulcinea; she can't bring the role's mystical side to life, but it's a bright, honest performance. As Don Quixote, Momchil Mladenov mimes clearly, but could do with greater dramatic weight. Ron J Matson and the Orchestra of Scottish Opera do their best for Nabokov's music. Balanchine's Don Quixote has been brought back with love and attention, but it doesn't come fully to life.
Until 29 August (0131-473 2000)Reuse content