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SFB To Perform Don Quixote at Edinburgh Festival

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I recognized so many life moments in the ballet. And life is often uncomfortable and painful. It was obviously an important ballet for Mr. B, not just in his declaration of love for Farrell but as a way to express his feelings about God, love, sacrifice, growing old, disappointment, embarrassment, dreams...
. . . and ostracism and misunderstanding, which seems to be the fate of this ballet, in the eyes of some viewers.
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Debra Craine's review in The Times (London) -- posted by dirac in today's Links -- includes a statement which may explain the great ambivalence with which so many people look at the Balanchine Don Q:

The music greatly disappoints, Nicolas Nabokov’s banal and chilly score dragging the ballet like a chain around the ankle.
I haven't seen this since the original performances back in the 60s, but the music was a major barrier to enjoying and appreciating the piece then. It did not sing and seemed very not well suited dance. This was commented on frequently in the reviews at the time. Remember, this was a company accustomed to dancing to Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Mozart, etc., etc.

But almost no one mentions it now, either in reviews or here on Ballet Talk. Craine's comment is more the exception than the rule. Does the music somehow seem "better" in 2005-6 than it did then?

Jack and others who've seen the Farrell version, what do you think about the contribution made by the music?

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I think our ears are different now. We've heard Adams and Torke and whole mash of stuff much more astringent than the Nabokov score. Personally, the music isn't the greatest but it didn't grate on me. It's sort of Eastern flavored - it sort of reminds me of Heinz's score for Ondine (not sure why, but it does).

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Although Ms. Farrell has said, "Balanchine liked it," I don't think it is memorable in any way except a snooze. Pleasant enough in the divertissements, and lovely in the third act in scattered bits, but on the whole very leaden.

I would have liked to see it again in Edinburgh as I imagine they have refined and tightened it up even more since last year in Washington....and Magnicaballi must be simply beautiful in it. I saw both casts last year and thought Heather Ogden very lovely and expressive. Magnicaballi is a dramatic ballerina with great depth as well as subtlety and intelligence and I imagine she was perfect in this....

I am sure that many in the audience were surprised by the ballet, but I applaud Ms. Farrell and the dancers for their extremely hard work and belief in the cause.....

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In his review of last year's performances at the Kennedy Center, John Rockwell called parts of the music "gorgeous," and some of it at the start of Act 3, is just that. But on the whole the music is no more than serviceable. The problem with the ballet is that it's not "Man of La Mancha." The mood is neither comic nor inspirational, but sad and gloomy. It must say something about me that I've always liked the ballet and still cry at its end.

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In his review of last year's performances at the Kennedy Center, John Rockwell called parts of the music "gorgeous," and some of it at the start of Act 3, is just that. But on the whole the music is no more than serviceable. The problem with the ballet is that it's not "Man of La Mancha." The mood is neither comic nor inspirational, but sad and gloomy. It must say something about me that I've always liked the ballet and still cry at its end.

I found the ballet very moving, especially the end when the figures emerge from the yellow light and move across the stage. The don rises on the pile of books. I was stunned and in awe. The music for the dream act has real beauty in it. I think the choreography is awesome. One thing I heard from people who saw the ballet in DC was that they felt betrayed by the emotion seen on stage, this from the cool neo-classicist. But I think Balanchine's work is soaked in emotion - the real kind - not the posturing kind. Just look at Duo Concertante or La Valse or Serenade.

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I came to admire the ballet very much -- not love it, but admire it. I had the chance to see it three times, and each time I saw more in it. People who had seen the original faulted the dancing -- not just Dulcinea, but the divertissements, that the dancing made the choreography look underpowered. I have no reason to doubt that. But I agree with Dale about it being "soaked in emotion." I'm already hearing people say "we'll never see it again" -- but that's what they said after NYCB danced it for "the last time."

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Alexandra, I think the NBoC has scheduled a run for next June, actually.

I'm sorry not to respond sooner, Farrell Fan, but have you noticed how things pile up when you're away, and then sometimes when you come back, the pile falls over on you?

The audience sounded appreciative of the dancing, mostly, including at the end of the first ensemble in the Act III scene i pas d'action, which is a "wrong place" for applause, and in all the right places, especially after the Mauresque, but they also laugh in two places (where I can't blame them much, although I don't join in), when the dummy "Don" falls from the windmill arm to the stage, and when a platform rises from the Don's bed to raise the standing Don. I don't remember any details from the old NYCB production, which I saw a few times (with Leland and Bonnefous, I think), so I don't remember how these bits were done then, but I wish there were better ways to do these moments. (There's a Fehl photograph of the raising business where the platform is so small you don't see it under the Don's gown, so that he may then have seemed to rise "in ecstacy, as mystics are by levitation," as Edwin Denby put it in 1965.)

I spoke with a few audience members. At the matinee, the nearest to me of four older women there together told me they'd chosen Don Quixote because it was a chance to see "something different"; one evening I sat next to a Canadian woman who said she was there because "I adore the ballet" and she didn't seem disappointed; and one evening, trying to sell a friend's ticket in front of the theatre, I was asked jokingly by one man, "Can't even give it away? Did you read The Scotsman?" I explained that I had seen previous performances and was back for more, but that a friend couldn't make it, and not to be discouraged by the first act. He and his companion brightened and went in.

And the reviews weren't all negative; Thom Dibdin's brief review in the Evening News for the 28th of August was upbeat, ending with "This is great to watch," although I'll have to admit someone posted a comment after Dibdin's review that she liked the Mauresque, but that was it.

Anyway, on Tuesday evening, at the last performance, we had the opening night's cast again, and I saw the performance from the center of row N in the Stalls, and several things were different from that close range. Mainly, I got much more out of Ogden's performance, especially in the tremendous Variation IV in the Act III scene i pas d'action.

Have you ever seen a film where, typically late in it, an actor makes visible, and so, accessible to us, a sequence of interior states, by a sequence of slight changes of expression, for example showing a series of realizations about what has gone before, passing through his mind? Not a lot of action, but as we empathise with the character, a lot of effect. This needs film (as well as a first-rate actor), rather than a theatre stage, for it really to work, because the director can bring us close to the performer, and when we see it, we may get a sense of how the character is carried along and even buffeted by events and the situation, and so, of how vulnerable he is to them.

From the closer seat, Ogden's performance of this "Variation" (a misleading title, like an understatement) was like this for me; her classical clarity and reticent purity understating the action but clearly differentiating and articulating the details in the flow, so that we empathise with Dulcinea's internal process and sequence, and the experience is vivid; Magnicaballi's eloquence, by its power, which had carried better in the large theatre, makes the character perhaps seem a little less vulnerable. (I hope I don't make it seem that the two dancers were completely different or even opposite when they weren't.)

This is the dance to dwell upon in that it grows out of all that's gone before, and would be diminished in effect if it were performed as an excerpt: We would wonder, What's she on about? (In continual agitation, she stretches her arms imploringly toward the wings, sometimes she looks as though she'd taken it into her head to throw it all away and fall on her ear, only to get on top of it again, and she repeatedly puts her face in her hands.) We need to have absorbed the preceding events for this to resonate. On the other hand, Balanchine inserted a short classic ballet, a Spanish dance, into Act I for a time, apparently in response to complaints about insufficient dancing in that act; Dr. Poesio mentioned that Farrell said she had this ballet and would like to stage it by itself, so maybe we will see it one of these days. Meanwhile, as narrative, Act I moves right along, and this is doubtless her purpose in leaving it out this time.

As the Dead Poet's Friend in Act I, Runqiao Du has a very small role, but his response to Don Quixote's threatening him with a dagger - for accusing the Shepherdess Marcela of complicity in the Poet's death - was sharply etched with his usual clarity but on a smaller scale, and I was glad to see this from closer range than from where his vivid high-energy performance in the pas d'action was effective - a little frightening, actually, as the story calls for at that point - every time.

About Goh's performances in the pas de deux Mauresque my only complaint is that it was the only thing she did!

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are supposed to make our sense of each the stronger because of contrast with the other, and when I read one of the critics' complaint that Mladenov gave us a sketch of the Don, I thought, an ink-and-wash-on-paper sketch, not all there (like the Don's mental state), silvery-gray makeup and costume (beard, armor, and ashen face) and much of his action on stage, nearly monochrome, compared to Eric Ragan's Sancho, a colorful stock character done as though in oils, and amply costumed in oversize peasant garments in earth tones. So the two were more effective than either could have been separately, but I wondered about something else.

One of the things Don Quixote is "about" is the series of visions of Dulcinea or Marcela which appear to the Don. When Marcela the Shepherdess appears, the villagers freeze in everyday poses, some even facing away from the action in center stage: They don't see her; she's a vision only he sees. Or is she? Ragan also reacts, and I wasn't clear whether it was to the vision of Marcela or to the Don's involvement with it. In the next scene, the one with the puppet show, the villagers imitate to each other some of the puppets' movements, so we know they see what we see. Part of the interest for me was the way we were "told" what was public and "real" and what was in the Don's mind only.

Watching the last few performances, I was surprised by how I began to like the music! Parts of it, like the pas d'action and the divertissements, but not just that; but by no means all, either. I suppose what happened there is that I associated the values of the dancing with the music at each point, like I did years ago, when Balanchine choreographed Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, a piece I never much cared for on its own. Now if I play a record of that music, I see some of the dancing in memory, but even where I don't I respond to that. Hmmm.

And I've also been struck by the quotations from Le Baiser de la Fee and A Midsummer Night's Dream in the choreography at the end of Act II. I don't know what to make of it, that is, whether we're to recognise it or not. I assume we're not, but I do anyway.

This was only my third Atlantic crossing. May I say I had a fine time in Edinburgh? The changing sky sometimes showering the city, making brighter and deeper the colors of the huge rock with the castle on top dominating the scene, not to mention keeping the greenery lush. And the Scots themselves: All the ones I met were full of smart energy and good spirits. Goodbye, Scotland! It was lovely, really.

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Thanks, Jack, for bringing this thread to closure, thus dissipating the virulent effects of those reviews. I came to admire much about Mr. B's Don Quixote last year in Washington (as I had years before at the New York State Theater), including some of the music, and I was struck by your description of the Don as a wash drawing, compared to Sancho's portrait in oils. The ballet, of course, rises or falls on its various incarnations of Dulcinea. I saw Heather Ogden last year and much admired her. I'm sure Magnicaballi this year was also memorable. It would be nice to see that Act I mini-ballet some day. At any rate, Suzanne performed a noble endeavor in reviving this flawed masterpiece, and you've done a great service in setting down exactly what happened.

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Well, Jack, if I couldn't be there (dd has stress fracture: Miss Farrell did not want her to risk it healing unproperly) you certainly helped make up for it. Great reports!

I was taken aback by the dismissiveness of some of the UK reviews. Having seen two performances at the Kennedy Center last year, I was suprised. Maybe this is just one of those ballets you "get" or don't. It's spiritual and has to be understood on that level.

Seemed like a (critics) group agenda to me. Anyway, you certainly gave us a refreshingly posivitive (but still critical) view of the whole run.

I remember speaking to some of the company after the KC run who spoke of a magnificent performance by Heather Ogden (the one in which she was dropped) in which she danced with the abandon most associated with Miss Farrell in that role. The word had spread through the company that something special was happening on stage and they had all gathered in the wings to watch Heather "go for it". Any hint of that in Edinburgh?

Would have really loved to have seen Natalia M and Goh.

I really enjoyed your film analogy. That's why I get those seats!



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Part of the UK critics' problem with this, aside from preconceptions about Balanchine, may be that the production was somewhat attenuated from the Washington premiere, because, I suppose, of the limitations of the smaller stage in the Edinburgh Playhouse compared to the Kennedy Center Opera House; besides what I mentioned already, the dragon was omitted from the Prologue, and, more importantly, the landing and stairs at the right the Don and Sancho enter Act II on was also missing. As the Washington run went on, Mladenov and Ragan began to get chuckles from the audience when they came on like the oddballs they are at court, because they were so incongruous with the courtiers, who had danced for a minute or two first; without this part of the set, their entrance was much less visible and less effective, and so we are less set up to be so appalled by the way the Don is treated toward the end of the act, and so the effectiveness of that was reduced.

I think the more that happens to us earlier in the course of this ballet, the more potential for resonance there is toward the end. Joan Acocella's characterisation, in her review in the July 25, 2005 New Yorker of the Washington premiere, though, catches for me most of the extent of the resonance: "Neither [Rodriguez or Ogden] was able to do what Farrell did with the great Act III solo. They made it psychological. ('Get up, Don Quixote! We've got to get out of here!') She made it spiritual. ('Get up, Don Quixote! Life is hell. Heaven is waiting. Get up, so you can die at home.') ... It wasn't Farrell, but it was a lot." Acocella saw Farrell, I didn't, except in the clips in Elusive Muse, but I think I can say Ogden still wasn't Farrell (no surprise), nor should she try to be; that would defeat anybody, and besides, it's not worthy. When I said "throw it all away" I did mean abandon (and more than a hint); but it was among those interior states made visible we could empathise with: psychological. Spiritual is another level. Psychological is still a lot, though, and all three dancers' performances supply part of the answer to the question, Is this worth putting on?

Not that I intend the question seriously. (Sometimes I get some "juice" out of an "experimental" approach to art appreciation, like, looking at a Dutch Master, how would the composition be affected if the man in the red cap had been omitted? Or, looking at one of my favorite American "masters," How would this dance "work" all by itself? Or if it preceded what it follows, instead?) And of course I'm not in charge. Some one else is, and she seems to me to have a sure sense of what to do and how to do it, and I continue to marvel at what her dancers show us onstage when I don't take into consideration how little time they all have together, and when I do take that into consideration, I marvel all over again. I suppose that's a large part of why I went to Edinburgh, rather than wait until June.

For me, another part of the answer is in Robert Gottlieb's review of the same premiere, where he makes the right comparison: "You need King Lear all the time, but every decade or so you also need Timon of Athens. Otherwise your understanding of a genius like Shakespeare - or Balanchine - is diminished, and so are you." (I take understanding in the large sense, in the sense of comprehension, not in the smaller sense of analysis, which is just a part.)

Edited by Jack Reed
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Thanks for those comments. It's a tribute to this ballet, and to what the Farrell Company is able to do with it, that it remains so vividly in your memory and gives us all so many things to ponder.

And thanks for this:

For me, another part of the answer is in Robert Gottlieb's review of the same premiere, where he makes the right comparison: "You need King Lear all the time, but every decade or so you also need Timon of Athens. Otherwise your understanding of a genius like Shakespeare - or Balanchine - is diminished, and so are you." (I take understanding in the large sense, in the sense of comprehension, not in the smaller sense of analysis, which is just a part.)
Very useful ideas to bring to the theater, in these days when there is so much "instant analysis" and non-reflective opinion-formation.
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