Carlos Acosta’s production of the old warhorse Don Quixote rides into town again for its first revival. It will share the Christmas schedule at the Royal Opera House with Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, signalling a shift away from the usual Nutcracker or Cinderella. In a similar fashion, Don Q is most certainly not a demanding ballet, a pleasing and non-too subtle romp through a creaky old story based ever-so loosely on Cervantes’s epic. What it does possess is some cracking choreography from Marius Petipa, the definer of Classical Ballet as we know it, albeit in a somewhat watered-down and adulterated version by Acosta himself. What must be acknowledged is that this Don Q is a far cry from the primary colours and broad-brushstroke approach that we know from the Bolshoi, Mikhailovsky and even Cuban companies; it is more a watercolour (Tim Hatley’s costumes gain in vibrancy and essential garishness from the first scene’s drab pastel palette) not only scenically, but also in terms of the dancing. If one were to identify a ballet as far from The Royal Ballet aesthetic, movement quality and tradition as possible, Don Q would certainly make the short-list if not get top-spot. This is the fundamental weakness of a production in which everyone tries so hard, and perhaps too hard. Just as certain actors are not suited to certain authors or roles, this company is not really suited to this ballet, and vice-versa.
Acosta has drawn-out the narrative – the Prologue is well considered, but there are numerous interpolations and extensions which all make for a long evening (just shy of three hours) and expose the essential flimsiness of the plot. Performed with flashing-eyes and over-the-topness, Don Q convinces, but with underlying English reserve and politeness, questions bubble up – what is happening, why and how long is it going to go on for? Acosta has also tried, paradoxically, to make it all too Spanish – adding flamenco guitarists and countless shouted ‘olés’ by the corps de ballet to the mix makes for an uncomfortable added ingredient to this balletic tale choreographed by a Frenchman in Russia to music by an Austrian. Adding to the discomfort is Martin Yates’s re-orchestration of Ludwig Minkus’s rumbustious score: tidied up, made far too genteel and over-subtle for this work, it acts as a drag on the evening, slowing the pace instead of whipping it up.
Tim Hatley’s settings do not always please either, from the moving buildings of the plaza (why?) to the giant windmills of the gypsy encampment and the huge flowers of the vision scene which only serve to dwarf the dancers. His costumes range from the drab to the polite, and it is only in the final wedding scene that they assume some of the requisite gaudiness, Basilio and Kitri in shimmering white rather than the usual red and black.
The dancers cannot really be faulted – The Royal Ballet's Director Kevin O’Hare has a young company brimming with talent, and they give their all, sometimes making something out of very little. The corps de ballet in the Vision Scene were neatly drilled, and soloists in command of their material – Grace Meaghan Hinkis was the most fleet-footed of Amours, Yuhui Choe cool as a cucumber in the Queen of the Dryad’s challenging Italian fouettés. All eyes are invariably on the central couple, and Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta will not have disappointed their many fans. Nuñez is a technical power-house, but there were moments when she was simply trying over-hard and her relationship with Basilio seemed too one-dimensional; there is no-one better than Acosta at portraying the boy-next-door jack-the-lad, so the cocky barber Basilio fits him like a glove, his acting natural and wholly engaging. Until the final pas de deux his dancing was also strong and characterful, but the duet is a test for any dancer, let alone one who has announced his retirement. Many casts follow.