The Washington Ballet
by Carmel Morgan
October 14, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC
The Washington Ballet achieved a remarkable feat last year with its award-winning version of “La Sylphide,” and part of its huge success had to do with having American Ballet Theatre’s magnificent principal dancer David Hallberg as a guest artist. This year, in its season opener “Don Quixote,” the Washington Ballet invited another exceptionally talented guest artist to join them, Viengsay Valdés, principal dancer and prima ballerina at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. She made a perfect Kitri – crisp technique, a broad smile, and just the right combination of playfulness coupled with seriously beautiful dancing. You have to give credit to the Washington Ballet’s artistic director Septime Webre (who happens to be a Cuban-American) for knowing who to call to get to the right dancer for that critical role.
The Washington Ballet’s strength leans toward snappy contemporary works, not full length classical repertoire. Therefore, “Don Quixote” posed a bit of challenge to them, especially since evening length ballets demand a big budget, a big cast, and significant acting ability. In the Washington Ballet’s “Don Quixote,” there was no live music (the canned castanets sounded strangely hollow), the costumes and set were borrowed (and looked rather dated, like they’d been packed away in a storage closet for several years), and the dancers in the Kingdom of the Dryads section included itty bitty students from the Washington School of Ballet (on whose tiny heads the cupid wigs of golden curls were ill-fitting). DC area ballet fans will no doubt recall the January 2009 production of “Don Quixote” by the Mariinsky Ballet at the Kennedy Center, and the depth of the Russian company and the lavishness of the sets, music, and costumes for that performance are hard to forget. It seems unfair to compare the two.
Despite the difficulties the Washington Ballet faced, its “Don Quixote” managed to be very enjoyable, particularly because Valdés joined them. From the moment she stepped onto the stage, you felt her vivacity. Jonathan Jordan was a worthy partner for her, turning up the juices when necessary and holding back at times to let her take her spins in the spotlight. The entire cast, in fact, performed admirably, but Jordan, Jared Nelson as the lead gypsy man, and the exquisite Maki Onuki as Amour stood out. Nelson – a handsome and alluring dancer – had a tremendous flash in his eyes. He displayed incredible strength and agility, plus a sense of fun and flirtation in his gypsy role. His swashbuckling antics (watch out for that whip!) awed the audience. Onuki, on the other hand, charmed as Amour. Her performance was grace itself, and she absolutely held her own in comparison to the distinguished guest artist Valdés. Onuki’s dancing was light, elegant, and full of expression.
Luis R. Torres, gave a quiet performance as “Don Quixote,” but it suited the ballet. His intense staring into space and haggard affect was appropriately poignant. Carlos Valcarcel, as Gamache, delighted the audience with his over-the-top performance as Basilio’s rival for Kitri’s hand in marriage. He was hilariously effeminate, and his clowning added a lot to the ballet as a whole. Brooklyn Mack, in his first season with the company, gave a solid and smoldering performance as Espada, the Toreodor. And Sona Kharatian danced with flourish as Mercedes, the street dancer.
A number of the newer dancers also had a certain spark, and it was wonderful to watch their lively faces. Standouts among this younger set included Andile Ndlovu (apprentice), Jong-Suk Park (in his first year with the studio company), and Alexandra Pera (in her second year with the studio company). Ndlovu posseses impressive stage presence. His dancing was razor-sharp, and his leaps were superb. Park is long-limbed, and he connected well with the audience, even if his jumps lacked the height of some others. Pera constantly emoted, and her ability to extend her dancing beyond simply the movement made her a dancer who continually caught one’s eye.
Wednesday night, the company’s preview performance date, however, did not go off without a hitch. Early in the ballet, Valdés tossed her fan to Jordan, but he completely missed catching it, and it landed with a thud. Later, one of the tiny cupids posed on her knees while the rest of the mini cherubs were standing. Since the out-of-place baby ballerina was at the front of a line, she did not realize her mistake for a while. When she suddenly figured out she was in the wrong position, she quickly stood up, resulting in some snickers from the audience. Not until Act III did things finally gel. Jordan, in particular, appeared much stronger and more confident at the ballet’s end, smoothly sailing through a series of showy leaps.