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Balanchine's Don Quixote


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#1 Farrell Fan

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Posted 01 March 2002 - 11:26 PM

"It's big. It's expensive. It's eye-filling. But it isn't a very good ballet." So wrote Walter Terry in 1965 about Balanchine's Don Quixote. In her autobiography, Suzanne Farrell wrote, "My success in the ballet, as well as Balanchine's was somewhat undermined by the critical response...Not a season went by that Balanchine didn't add, subtract, or change something in it, always trying for a better way to seduce the audience into enjoying and accepting it."

But nothing seemed to work. And it wasn't just critics who were displeased. I remember that subscribers stayed away in droves whenever it was performed. Sometimes I heard boos at the final curtain. Even the prospect of seeing Mr. B himself in the title role didn't help, because as Farrell recalled, "His appearances were never posted on the casting list; they would be announced over the loudspeaker as the lights in the theater dimmed."

Despite the continual tinkering, I remember always enjoying the ballet. Nancy Reynolds wrote, "This is a very rare case of a Balanchine ballet that reveals itself most fully in recollection, not in immediate kinetic impact." A lot of years have passed since its last performance -- but I wonder at the Don Quixote recollections of Ballet Alertniks. And does anyone think a revival could possibly work?

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 01 March 2002 - 11:31 PM

Thank you for posting this, Farrell Fan. One of my dreams is for Farrell to revive this ballet. I forgot to add that to my If I Won the Lottery List.

I have a good friend who loved Don Quixote, and thought it wasn't successful partly becuase of the music -- would this, like the score for "Ondine," be easier to take now than at its birth? -- and partly because people didn't expect this kind of a ballet from Balanchine. It wasn't obviously avant-garde, like much of his work, and it wasn't neatly packaged, like the new full-length ballets that Cranko and MacMillan were doing.

I think we might see it with new eyes today -- and I think it might well become a model for the next generation of choreographers interested in making full-length ballets.

I, too, would love to hear some recollections of people who saw it (whether you loved it or avoided it smile.gif )

#3 Hal

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 06:26 PM

I usually avoided it. I can remember some of the costumes in my mind but none of the dancing or music. As I recall the only saving grace for it was when Farrell danced it. Of course just seeing her walk across a stage would be electrifying. The most interesting point of the ballet was the metaphore it had for their relationship.

#4 Ari

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 09:28 PM

quote:


The most interesting point of the ballet was the metaphore it had for their relationship.

Actually, I think it was this aspect of the ballet that made people so uncomfortable. I think it embarrassed them to see so naked and unashamed a declaration of a passion that at that time was only gossiped about. The depiction of Balanchine as a visionary, misunderstood artist was also seen as self-indulgent, much as The Crucible was seen at its premiere as a self-pitying attempt to mythologize Arthur Miller's struggle with Joe McCarthy. Years later, we can watch The Crucible unencumbered by such historical baggage, but I'm not sure if Don Quixote would enjoy a similar success.

I saw the ballet's final performances in 1978, and I don't really know how I'd respond to it today. Back then, my main feeling was gratitude that a gap in my experience of the Balanchine oeuvre was now filled in. Balanchine was still alive, of course (it was he who permanently retired the ballet), and Farrell still danced it. But his obsession with her was by then over.

The main problem with the ballet was that the emphasis on the repeated cruelties inflicted on the Don made the ballet difficult to watch, and with such a downbeat storyline it was hard to add secondary incidents or scenes that were complementary.

It was also disconcerting to see so little dancing, although some of it was very good. The deliciously sinuous Pas de deux Mauresque was superlatively danced by the very young Nichol Hlinka (a friend who had seen Gelsey Kirkland do it said that Hlinka was better), and the dance of the maidens in Act III(?) was danced strongly by Susan Hendl but more subtly and appropriately by Stephanie Saland. Adam Luders, with his odd appearance and air of not fitting in, was good casting for the Don. And Farrell was Farrell.

One surprising thing about the ballet was the unusually (for this company) handsome scenery and costumes by Esteban FrancÚs. A ballroom scene done in black and gold was particularly striking, but left plenty of room for dancing. I remember thinking that this was the sort of decor that should be a model for all ballet designers.

Assuming that the ballet could be revived today--that is, if there are enough people around who remember the steps and blocking well enough to stage it faithfully--there is the question of who could coach the dancers well enough to infuse them with the proper spirit. Farrell could do it in part, but she'd need help. Perhaps, if Luders worked closely enough with Balanchine for him to have absorbed enough of the essence of what Balanchine was trying to do, he could provide the crucial male perspective.

#5 liebs

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 10:46 PM

I saw Don Q at least once, with Luders and Farrell and possibly twice between 74 and 78. I think twice because the second version featured a jota (I think) danced in red and black costumes by Merrill Ashley.

I'm obviously in the minority but I loved the ballet for its theatrical effects - the book, the little princess in the puppet show, the well mannered horror of the court scenes - for Farrell's dancing, Luder's performance and the scenery. The dances for Farrell were extraordinary, you can see some of it on the Farrell documentary.

I've heard rumors that NYCB wants to revive it but, of course, Farrell holds the rights, so who knows? It would certainly be possible there are enough people who were in it such as Schorer, who I think was the original dancer in Pas Mauresque, Luders, Ashley, Dunleavy and Mazzo and Leland who also danced Dulcinea.

#6 Mel Johnson

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Posted 03 March 2002 - 08:12 AM

I, for one, hope they don't revive it. It was ghastly. For me it was sort of a balletic stuffed owl: so horrible, you couldn't take your eyes off it! I will admit that my capsule review made during the first season it was performed was never displaced - "It's a wonderful art show; too bad the dancers kept getting in the way."

(FYI - a "stuffed owl" is also a name for a poem, usually by a master, that is a real loser! Of course, there have been poets who wrote nothing BUT "stuffed owls", like William McGonagall, George Wither, and Julia Moore!)

#7 Jack Reed

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Posted 03 March 2002 - 10:02 PM

FWIW, the only time I now remember seeing Mr. B's "Don Q" was a lesson in how what you think of something is affected by what else you see around the same time. In the mid-70s I had made a carelessly-planned trip to Boston where I naively had expected to see a revival of his "Card Game" to which I had ordered a ticket for each of the three performances; discovering a very amateurish non-ballet to the same music in its place, I fled to New York ahead of schedule and rushed to the State Theatre to recover, not caring what was on.

"Don Q" was on, and although I had generally avoided it before on the basis of usually reliable advice, this time it was a great comfort (in spite of its earsore of a score) for the clarity, steadiness and firmness with which the spectacle unfolded on stage, more a series of animated pictorial tableaux than a ballet. Plainly the work of a master of the theatre, although hardly a favorite of mine, it told me that I was "home" again, and it reassured me that in a few days the formidable powers behind what I was seeing would be deployed in other ways so that I would again leave the theatre I had entered carrying the fatigue of the evening refreshed and with the energy and optimism of morning.

As to the technical possibility of restaging it, I thought there was a film made with Farrell and Balanchine in it.

[ March 03, 2002, 10:16 PM: Message edited by: Jack Reed ]

#8 atm711

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Posted 04 March 2002 - 01:39 PM

I saw it only once, and it was the first performance. I am with Mel on this one. In l965 I was not a Farrell fan--she was much too bland for my taste---however, I am completely devoted to the post-Bejart Farrell. My recollection of the ballet is not as sharp as Ari's, but what I do remember is a general murkiness---and that terrible score.

#9 Paul Parish

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Posted 07 March 2002 - 01:26 AM

One of the Denbyisms I memorized long ago - -so I've probably got it twisted by now -- was not something he wrote, but something he was reported to have said -- in response to someone who hadn't liked DOnQ and had quipped "Oh yes, it moved me -- right out of hte theater" -- Denby replied "Well, that's where you belong then.'

Don Quixote the book IS full of horrible cruelties -- the Russian movie of it is very good at reproducing them, eps the scenes at court are quite unbearable..... That doesn't keep it from being one of the few truly great books.

I wish I'd seen the ballet -- it's my greatest dance-regret, other than not having been myself a great dancer.... all I can say is the 2 solos of Farrell's dancing that are shown in the Farrell bio-video -- are flat-out the finest dancing I've ever seen from a pretty girl. It's in Ingmar Bergman land, but beyond -- far beyond pretty, it's far beyond beautiful -- it's not just that she's like smoke, it's not just how instantaneously she changes speed or direction, from whipping to dragging, from skipping to fleeing, from rushing to swooning -- there's a moment where she puts her hand out and it's like she touches death but grabs her hand back and flees before he grabs her--it's the changes of emotional color, of spiritual energy, it's terrifying, or would be if there wasn't some way in which she makes you feel that she's watched over by some power that will not let her come to harm.

There's nobody she could teach THAT to.

#10 rg

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Posted 07 March 2002 - 10:25 AM

a lot of us grumbled a good deal as 'don q' came into rep rotation, but likewise we couldn't necessarily stay away. i remember the day e.gorey noted how one should have been keeping a careful log of ALL the changes balanchine kept making to his ballet, no two runs were ever of the choreographic/staging text as before: dances in, dances out, changes to this and the other section, decor alterations, etc. etc.. my first views of the ballet were after 1969, once farrell left the co. and s. leland and k. mazzo shared dancing dulcinea, but the finally w/ farrell again when she returned to nycb. and to be sure the solos you mention paul, from the last act's great pas d'action stand out among the most blindingly brilliant choreography and dancing ever put on a stage, up to that point and since!
all the complaints about the score were stated year after year but some of us still couldn't/wouldn't stay away. like a previous post-er here, i too saw the final, final performance, and due to the auspices of the late david daniel got to visit farrell's dressing room and get her to sign the prog. needless to remark it now remains quite an archival treasure. (alas i never saw mr. b perform the don but i saw splendid renderings of this role by r. rapp, j. d'amboise, and perhaps, most especially from adam luders.)

#11 Manhattnik

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Posted 07 March 2002 - 01:23 PM

I wish I could remember more of this! All I recall was that the music was deadly, sucking all the life out of whatever Balanchine was trying to accomplish, and that Farrell made a lovely shepardess.

Of course there are lots of things I wish I could remember from back then....

#12 Dale

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Posted 17 March 2002 - 02:12 AM

I saw the ballet in 1978 when I was very young. History -- Although I was taken to NYCB before Farrell returned (I believe Kirkland was in my first Nutcracker), I had decided she was my favorite ballerina after seeing her picture in a book and reading how Balanchine adored her. So I had seen the pictures of Farrell in Don Q before I got a chance to see her dance it and one of the few things I remember about the performance was that I thought she looked too old for the part. Not old as in past her prime, but part seemed tailored for a much younger dancer...girlish. I thought Farrell much more glamorous. But the other thing I recall was that she was amazing and it was, I think, the first time I really noticed Kyra Nichols.

But after revisting the ballet, it makes me wonder whether to place this work alongside La Sonnambula for its creepiness in the divertisments and the "artist misunderstood and tortured by the philistines" theme. Both ballets have the same designer, but I think Rieti's music is more successful.

I wonder where Don Q. fits in the development of Balanchine's choreography. A lot of the divertisment dances contain turned in knees, quick shifts of direction and hopes on point.

#13 Paul Parish

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Posted 17 March 2002 - 03:42 AM

quote:


Originally posted by Dale:
But after revisting the ballet, it makes me wonder whether to place this work alongside La Sonnambula for its creepiness in the divertisments and the "artist misunderstood and tortured by the philistines" theme. [/QB]

I think you're absolutely right, and I'd add Davidsbundlertaenze to the list.

Yes it's creepy, but it's also creepy if you ARE sort of dead to the world to find how envious and petty, not to mention off-key, the world can be... I heard that Balanchine proposed a sequel to Sonnambula to Allegra Kent -- "Poet marries sleepwalker, moves to New ROchelle"

Re Sonnambula, when i saw Emeralds last night, Julie Diana and Damian Smith made the second pas de deux look like sleepwalking..... it was BEAUTIFUL.

#14 Dale

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Posted 17 March 2002 - 04:03 AM

I say creepy I guess because I've been influenced by Croce's essay on La Sonnambula. As she wrote, it is sort of a sordid gathering -- I mean, it is hosted by a man and his mistress...a masked ball with strange entertainment. It is the exotica of the divertisments that reminded me of the same in Act II of Don Quixote. ... winding arm and legs, the snakey hands.

#15 Mel Johnson

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Posted 17 March 2002 - 07:04 AM

I think that Balanchine was highly influenced in "La Sonnabula" by the lives and legends of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, as put forward by their contemporary Edward Trelawny. In his recollections of the English Romantics, Trelawny also did a lot of recording of folklore surrounding the three (Black Masses, death wishes, and so on), and Balanchine was also influenced in his story-telling by the French Romantics like Gautier, Baudelaire, and the last of the breed, Apollinaire.

These concepts do not easily translate into the Cervantes of Don Quixote, and formed an uneasy and unwholesome impression, especially the palace scene, which is still the best Act III Swan Lake set ever designed.


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