The sets were amazing, the costumes stunning, the integration of video/images imaginative, the score fast and flamboyant, the life-size horse puppet fantastic, the choreography ambitious, the characters lovable, so why am I left with the feeling something was off? Last night’s premiere of Yuri Possoknov’s version of Don Quixote for the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre had all the elements for a spectacular opening night, but it just didn’t quite get there. That may be a bit harsh. It was a wonderful show and sure to be a huge hit with audiences, but some of casting and staging were questionable and at times it seemed more like a full dress run and not up to the bar Joffrey has set for themselves. The show was held for twenty minutes due to a medical emergency (someone slipped and fell in the lobby), which may have had a negative effect on the dancers. I should also note that I sat in the third row, which was too close for my taste, and the ballet seemed almost too big for the stage.
Let’s start with the good stuff – and there was more than plenty. First, Victoria Jaiani as Kitri was fantastic as we have come to expect. Her fiery, flirty interpretation seemed second nature (although she seemed uncharacteristically nervous in parts of Act I) and I assume, growing up in Tbilisi, Georgia, she was practically weened on the part. Her ridiculous flexibility was on full display particularly in Kitri’s Act I solo with Plisetskaya leaps (named after Maya Plisetskaya who made them famous with the Bolshoi) where she literally kicks the back of her head. But why was she carrying castanets if she wasn’t playing them? The Act II wedding pas de deux coda famously has a run of thirty-two fouettes. Jaiani’s was spot on, even tossing in doubles every third turn in the first half. From my seat, while watching her turn, I could perfectly see her husband Temur Suluashvili’s face behind her beaming with love and pride. Jaiani’s partner (hired to replace the injured Miguel Angel Blanco), Cuban guest artist Carlos Quenedit, was charming, charismatic and mui talented, although I kept wondering “who is this guy?” The program only notes (with an asterisk) that he’s a guest artist. He was great and would be a lovely addition to the Joffrey family, but why hire a guest artist?
The other star of the show was the puppet. Crafted by Von Orthal Puppets, Rocinante, Don Q’s faithful companion was fresh and endearing addition to the cast performed by Shane Urton and Alberto Velazquez. The creation, nicknamed Otis by the company, only appeared in a few scenes which was a shame. Free Otis! More of the horse please. All of the character parts were perfectly played. Fabrice Calmels as Don Quixote (dashing, distracted), Derrick Agnoletti as Sancho Panza (delightfully bumbling), Willy Shives as Lorenzo (deliciously daft) and Matthew Adamczyk as Gamache (scene-stealingly silly). Soloists Amber Neumann and Stacia Holden were stand outs as Kitri’s friends. The corps — toreadors, seguidillas, dryads and bridesmaids — were outstanding and, aside from Kitri, did most of the dancing. Two female solo variations beautifully danced by Amber Neumann and Jeraldine Mendoza inserted in the middle of the Act II pas de deux seemed out of place and unnecessary. Equally perplexing was the need for the character Mercedes, a street dancer (Alexis Polito) who danced in the village with the toreadors. No offense to Polito who danced a lovely solo amidst daggers ingeniously stuck to the floor with frightening intensity, but I failed to see how her character aided the story line.
The audience at first seemed timid and unsure of how to react to such a bold and ambitious production. Case in point: Kitri and Basilio do these amazing one-handed presage lifts about six times. The first four are done in pairs and in quick succession separated by supported pirouettes. Fair enough, the lift might not have been held long enough for them to really see what was going on. The second two are held for a sustained period of time – long enough for Jaiani to hold, look at audience and shake her tambourine before coming down – with the orchestra (Chicago Sinfonietta) holding for effect. The first lift…nothin’. The second, held long enough for Quenedit to carry her – with one hand! - across the entire stage. I laughed out loud before obnoxiously clapping, wondering what it was going to take to get these people going. Luckily, they came around and were clapping to the music enthusiastically during the finale. Over all, it was a tremendous undertaking that, once a few kinks are figured out (particularly the long, awkward “pause” in Act II), will delight for the entire two week run. As Artistic Director Ashley Wheater said last week, “I think the company will grow into it.” I think they will and hope Don Q will be in Joffrey’s rep for a long, long time.