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After 140 years of watching Russian balletcompanies wildly distort his story, the ghost of Cervantes must be thrilled with the dance-theater treatment Synetic Theater’s band of Soviet émigrés has given Don Quixote. This latest of its literary adaptations should be a hit for the physical theater troupe: Take a novel known for episodic chicanery—tilting at windmills, etc.—and propel the plotless story forward with exaggerated, acrobatic takes on choreography that’s kept Don Q in ballet repertory for decades.
Blame a 19th-century choreographer named Marius Petipa if people assume the main characters here are a barber named Basilio and his would-be bride, a 17th-century Castilian It Girl named Kitri. Don Quixote is typically portrayed as a bumbling fool who brokers a marriage deal with Kitri’s father while his sidekick Sancho Panza steals fish and flirts with Spanish dancers.
Onstage at the Kennedy Center last week, it took two and a half hours for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba to tell that story, even though it’s but two chapters in Cervantes’ 1,000-page novel. To be fair, the Cuban production is truer to Cervantes than most, and anyone who saw the ballet and sees Synetic’s Don Quixote is a) lucky and b) ready to write a comparative studies thesis. Many ballet companies eliminate the character of Dulcinea, the virtuous ideal of courtly love that the knight seeks on his quest. Yet without her, Don Q is pretty much a dirty old man eager to get his armored paws on Kitri during the dream sequence.
The Cubans wisely keep Dulcinea, so it’s fascinating to compare how she’s portrayed in the ballet and by Irina Tsikurishvili, the former Georgian ballerina who choreographs for Synetic. In the Ballet Nacional’s version, Dulcinea appears tip-toeing across stage in a long gown, enshrouded by a veil. At Synetic, local dancer Francesca Jandasek appears as Dulcinea in similar feminine vestments. She’s a vision rotating atop a pyramid setpiece, like the Virgin Mary in an electric blue wig.
Visually, Synetic director Paata Tsikurishvili has pulled off another coup. The set, by Georgi Alexi-Meskhisvili, asks the cast to clamber across a black wall concealing dozens of handholds and ledges. It looks bare, until the black lights flicker on and the stage is awash in Day-Glo orange, white, and blue. One versatile set piece functions as everything from Dulcinea’s pedestal to a courtesan’s carriage, to, at the climax, a rotating human-powered windmill. (The ensemble must be more exhausted than usual after performances, with each member playing as many as five characters and working on both horizontal and vertical axes.)
There is a serviceable script (by Roland L. Reed), but the body language is more compelling. As the beleaguered knight, Dan Istrate walks with eyes bugged out, his shoulders back, his pelvis forward, and his legs apart, as if he’s spent too long in the imaginary saddle. Between deeds of derring-do—freeing prisoners, causing chaos at a brothel, crashing a party at a castle—Istrate and Ryan Sellers, as Panza, faux-gallop to Spaghetti Western strains composed by Konstantine Lortkipanidze.
The episodic nature of Don Quixote is slightly problematic. The fog machine-driven climax, in which the knight fights a windmill and the physical embodiment of a dragon (contortionist Alex Mills), is best enjoyed for special effects rather than conflict resolution. In the novel, the dragon functions as a metaphor for the Spanish Inquisition; Paata Tsikurishvili targets religious hypocrisy and total depravity. And indeed, the moral plumb line of Synetic’s Don Quixote has a stronger pull than the plot. That Quixote is delusional is never a question, but what you second guess, by show’s end, is whether a sincere search for goodness can ever coincide with sanity.