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  • The Spirit of Don Quixote: A history of the ballet

The Spirit of Don Quixote: A history of the ballet

How a colourful Spanish novel became a great ballet classic.

By Tim Scholl (Writer and dance historian)

14 October 2013 at 2.41pm | 3 Comments

In his article for The Royal Ballet's programme book, Professor Tim Scholl explores the history of the Don Quixote ballet, and discusses the circulation of this enduringly popular work.

In staging Don Quixote, originally for the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1869, then in a grander St Petersburg production two years later, Petipa followed in a long tradition of Don Quixote productions staged in leading theatres across Europe, the first of which dates to 1740. None of these earlier works survives. And like many ballets from the 19th-century European repertory (Giselle, Le Corsaire and Esmeralda, to name only a few), the spirit, if not the substance, of these Western European Don Quixote ballets remained alive in Russia long after earlier versions disappeared from the stage elsewhere. Even in Russia, three productions proceeded Petipa’s own. Choreographers commonly copied or adapted the works of other dance-makers, and popular plots circulated widely.

Ironically, the ballet we speak of as ‘Petipa’s’ Don Quixote is not quite his. Much as Petipa repurposed the ballets of other choreographers, budding ballet master Aleksandr Gorsky staged his revision of the Petipa work in Moscow in 1900. Influenced by the naturalist acting style that Konstantin Stanislavsky was developing in Moscow, Gorsky encouraged his dancers, including the corps de ballet, to examine their characters’ motivations. In his enthusiasm to break with ‘old’ ballet convention, Gorsky sought to integrate the Petipa divertissements into the fabric of the drama. Though shocking for their time, Gorsky’s innovations and interpolations now seem very much in keeping with the style and structure of the ‘old’ Petipa ballet. The ballet still follows the main lines of a Petipa work, with its deployment of the plot in the first act, the vision scene for the female corps de ballet and soloists – where men trespass only in their dreams – and, finally, a marriage celebration. Faithful to Petipa’s desire to create spectacles, not just ballets, Gorsky even maintained the scene with a marionette theatre in the second act. Yet Gorsky’s most famous revision to the ballet must be Kitri’s final-act solo with the fan, created for Kshesinskaya. Ubiquitous on gala programmes around the world, the Don Quixote pas de deux and the solo still function as an introduction to the ballet for many audience members.

Don Quixote’s entrance into the Western ballet canon has been relatively recent despite its status as a staple of the Soviet and Russian ballet repertories. The Wedding pas de deux naturally came first; full productions followed decades later. Ninette de Valois produced her version for The Royal Ballet in 1950, but with new choreography. George Balanchine even jettisoned the Minkus score for his own 1965 meditation on the theme of Dulcinea for New York City Ballet. Major Western ballet troupes began to produce the complete work only in the 1960s, when Don Quixote quickly established itself as a repertory standard, enjoying the acclaim of Petipa’s own Imperial Ballet stagings.

This extract is taken from Tim Scholl’s article ‘The Ballet’s Carmen’. The full article can be found in the Don Quixote programme book, available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop. 

The Royal Ballet’s production of Don Quixote runs from 5 October–6 November 2013, with the production relayed live into cinemas around the world on 16 October. The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A Olde OBE, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson and the Royal Opera House Endowment Fund. 

By Tim Scholl (Writer and dance historian)

14 October 2013 at 2.41pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged background, by Carlos Acosta, Don Quixote, history, Marius Petipa, Production

This article has 3 comments

  1. midsman responded on 14 October 2013 at 5:21pm Reply

    Worth noting that the first full length production in this country came,surprisingly, considering the size of the Company from BALLET RAMBERT ;premiered at Liverpool Empire,June 1962 and in their touring repertory for the next few years.Lucette Aldous was a memorable Kitri and later appeared with Nureyev in the Australian Ballet production that was filmed.

  2. L Y Han responded on 14 October 2013 at 10:25pm Reply

    Very good to see Ryoichi Hirano in role of head matador.

  3. David Sumray responded on 28 July 2014 at 12:48pm Reply

    Whilst acknowledging that this is an abridged version of the article, the Wedding pas de deux did not come first. Novikoff's two-act version of the Gorsky production came first, for Pavlova at Covent Garden in 1924; a production she took around the world with her in the following years.

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