For Jan. 27’s Sunday matinee, the War Memorial Opera House was illuminated in red for the opening weekend of San Francisco Ballet’s “Don Quixote.” Slicked and primped attendees were welcomed into the grandiose venue by charming orchestral music as they took their seats in anticipation of the performance.
Composed by Ludwig Minkus, the score to the ballet is performed by a full, live orchestra conducted by Tara Simoncic. The music gave a magical Disneyland feel to the performance and, since the dancers do not speak, increased the dramatic effect of certain scenes and moments.
Inspired by author Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century book, this ballet originally premiered in 1869 in Moscow, Russia. In honor of the ballet’s 150th anniversary, SF Ballet’s current production is modeled closely after the original 1869 version choreographed by Marius Petipa.
The afternoon opened with a playful introduction to the characters of Don Quixote (Alexander Reneff-Olson) and Sancho Panza (Diego Cruz) in a library. Although the ballet is named after Quixote’s character, the story mainly follows the forbidden love between Kitri (Dores André), an innkeeper’s daughter, and Basilio (Wei Wang), a barber.
The performance skillfully balanced humor and absurdity with sophistication. Don Quixote’s adventure is a lighthearted journey commenting on chivalry and romance. In the ballet, it does so by mixing the gaiety of love with the elegance of the ballet medium.
The dancers of the night were full of enthusiasm, showing expressive facial features and fluid, flamboyant movement. Choreographed by Alexander Gorsky, scenes integrated Spanish fans, guitars and toreador capes to spice up the performance.
As Basilio, Wang stood out with his amazing midair turns that elicited gasps from the audience. Wang trained both in China, where he is from, and the United States before he was awarded the position of principal dancer at SF Ballet last year.
André’s performance as Kitri was similarly impeccable, her movements often seeming almost dangerous with how carefully they were constructed. The dancer trained in her home country of Spain before transitioning to SF Ballet.
While the story of “Don Quixote” centers on a celebration of mainly Spanish culture, the mix of dancers onstage reflected a celebration of diversity in the arts. Ranging from Brazil to France, Mexico to Japan, Australia to Argentina, the performers represented their home countries with pride.
Between scenes, luscious red curtains closed to give stagehands a chance to reset backgrounds and prep the next group of dancers — and occasionally to prepare the live horses that were brought onstage. Respecting the fact that the story takes place in Spain (mainly Barcelona) the set design by Martin Pakledinaz and Arnulfo Maldonado was brilliantly colored and structured to resemble this European city.
Since, aside from music and subtle sound effects, the narrative in ballets is expressed solely through movement, the lighting onstage proved to be important for conveying the mood during a scene. This showed especially during Quixote’s dream scene, in which a sea of fairies, or dryads, dance in front of twinkling fairy lights, giving the stage the feel of a Peter Pan movie.
Costume choices by Pakledinaz and Heather Lockard reflect classical Spanish style and feature vibrant color and immaculate detailing — especially on the women’s dresses, which include delicate laces, flowing silhouettes and airy tutus.
The SF Ballet is currently in its 86th repertory season, and its many years of experience showed with this world-class performance. “Don Quixote” is not just a celebration of culture, but of the welcoming environment the arts can provide for people of all backgrounds to share their stories.