Don Quixote/ Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Poor old Don Quixote. Not only is he afflicted by chaotic, fractious delusions that mark him out as a 17th-century sufferer of senile dementia, but despite being the titular protagonist, he stumbles about on the edges of the action. The real heroes of the Petipa-Gorsky ballet are Kitri and Basilio, from one of the countless subplots in Cervantes' picaresque novel. And yet Don Quixote's complexity demands a character artist of real power. Of the present Royal Ballet incumbents, Christopher Saunders cuts an unexpectedly robust figure, so that although he conveys the Don's feudal dignity, he lacks the pathos of a confused and querulous old man. The best so far is Luke Heydon – but then, he's getting better and better at playing elderly gents. He's also strong on comedy, and slots smoothly into the alternative role of the foppish, rich Gamache, the suitor for Kitri who is backed by her father. Here, Heydon opts for broadly delineated snobbish outrage, although young Joshua Tuifua's quieter reading is almost as effective.

The Don and Gamache are just two figures in a tapestry seething with vivid individuals. Lorenzo, Kitri's innkeeper father, is perfectly portrayed by David Drew, who gives weight to every gesture and whose unbridled relief at Basilio's supposed demise is pricelessly funny. By contrast, Sancho Panza is a problem in this staging, with no one yet able to transform the roly-poly antics into anything remotely funny.

There is also an important clutch of featured dance roles, such as Espada, the matador, whose brilliant Spanish-classical choreography needs more panache than the dancers plucked from the junior ranks have so far managed. In the vision scene, the Queen of the Dryads' elegant contours are shaped with ideal amplitude by Zenaida Yanowksy, and Amour, pert and pretty, is danced with lovely musical phrasing by Laura Morera, whose rubato flourishes also bring cachet to the final act's bridesmaid. Equally, this is a ballet of showpiece group dances that glitter, and it was heartening to see the company in such taut form.

And so to Kitri and Basilio, both feisty, both flirtatious, but both deadly serious about their love for each other. Following the first-night cast came Marianela Nuñez, who gleamed as Kitri rather than fizzed, but was still irresistible and assured. She had the benefit of Carlos Acosta, the most dazzling of the scheduled Basilios. It must be Acosta's Cuban blood, but Basilio could have been tailor-made for his comic timing, outgoing personality and unbelievable dancing. He performed aerial display steps that we'd never ever seen before, so monumental we ended up laughing. He finished his spiralling turns and landings with a touch-tone control decelerating into a floor-caressing halt.

By contrast, young Ivan Putrov, paired with Alina Cojocaru, has some way to go. He looks the boy that he is – slender, long-legged, wonderfully light, but needing more control and presence. Cojocaru, though, proves again she has skills beyond her years. She may have an elfin physique, but her dance spans great segments of space. She can rev up into coruscating speed. She can freeze mid-phrase into a balance so secure it's like a snapshot. Her status in the Royal Ballet is not just as their newest principal, but as a major star.

To 14 December, 020-7304 4000