Saturday, March 25, 2023

Don Quixote at the Atlanta Ballet

In June or July 2022 I watched an interview with the dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov on the TV show CBS Sunday Morning. The music from the short clip of him dancing sounded very familiar; I did not know from which ballet this was. For the next several weeks I tried to find out on the Internet where this short dance came from. Finally I found out that it was called the Basilio Variation from the Ballet Don Quixote. I really wished to see this ballet that I had never seen. I had attended ballet performances in Paris at the Opera Garnier, at the San Francisco Opera House, Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre in Ukraine, and during my first stay in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the Mariinsky Ballet and Opera House, but never seen this ballet. It had been at least 5 years since I attended, with my late husband, the Moulin Rouge ballet in Atlanta, Georgia.
Then I researched for a while to find where this ballet might be performed within the next few months. I checked all the large cities ballets, such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Chicago and more. Then I checked Paris, London, Amsterdam, Zurich, Vienna and Venice - It had been performed there in previous years but not in the near future. I almost gave up and then checked Atlanta. Surprise! It was on the Atlanta Ballet season for 2023, in March. I could not believe that it was so close to home. I waited for tickets to be available and quickly bought one last November. Then my younger daughter told me they were all going to San Salvador for spring break and would fly back into Atlanta just a couple of days before the performance, so I was lucky to find two tickets next to me for my daughter and granddaughter for the Saturday March 18, 2023 matinee performance at the Atlanta Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, where ballets take place.
Now I had time to do my favorite thing - research the story, history of the ballet, the music, the artistic directors and choreographers, where and when it had been performed for the first time and more. I found some interesting facts. First of all, the Spanish epic novel Don Quixote was written by Miguel de Cervantes in two parts, in 1605 and 1615. It is considered the first modern novel and one of the greatest. It has been translated into 50+ languages and is the best-selling novel of all times (at least 500 million copies so far.) It has had a great influence on Western books, plays, movies and works of art since then. It offers universal truths, commentaries on social life and provides escapism. Below is Miguel de Cervantes (29 September 1547 - 22 April 1616.)
and some book covers of his novels in several languages; the bottom right one one is an e-book. (Click on collage to enlarge.)
Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries was the European country where one should travel to visit Roman ruins, or view statues, paintings and so forth. But starting in the 19th century, around 1820, travelers switched their interest to Spain. Writers like Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and others thought that Spain offered more inspiration and adventures. French and Russian writers, painters, musicians, and choreographers were inspired by Spain. Europe as a whole shared a fascination for Spain.
Alexander III (1845-1894) Emperor of Russia, was a patron of the ballet, and requested a Spanish-themed ballet be shown in Russia. The imperial theatre commissioned Marius Petipa to mount and choreograph a work in the Spanish style. Below photo of Petipa.
I found the life of Marius Petipa fascinating. Victor Marius Alphonse Petipa was born in 1818 in Marseille, France. His father Jean Antoine Petipa was working as principal dancer and Maitre de Ballet in Marseille. Petipa's mother, Victorine Grasseau, was a drama actress playing tragic roles. His brother Lucien became a distinguished dancer and his sister, Victorine, a noted singer. They were a close-knit family. His father began teaching ballet to Marius when he was seven, and at the age of nine he made his stage debut in one of his father's ballets at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium. Marius was appointed to the Ballet of Nantes, France, as principal dancer then in Bordeaux. Below is the Petipa family, with Marius on the left, then his brother Lucien, his sister Victorine and mother Victorine.
In 1843 Marius started a 3-year working tour in Spain where he became master in Sevillian dances and castanets. He then began to choreograph his own ballets. He had already spent time in Paris where his brother Lucien was principal dancer at the Paris Opera. Lucien worked also in Russia and provided Marius with an invitation to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1847 to become principal dancer at the Imperial Ballet. A year later, in 1848, his father joined him there to be a teacher at the Imperial Ballet School (call the Vaganova Ballet Academy of Russian Ballet since 1957, and shown below.)
Marius Petipa signed a one-year contract in St. Petersburg but was to live there the rest of his life. Following his father's path as a ballet dancer he then had a career in choreography where he created more than 60 ballets, reworked 20 old pieces and re-arranged the dancing in over 35 operas. He also prepared galas and divertissements for court performances, royal nuptials, etc. The St. Petersburg's public adored the ballet and expected brilliant performances; news media reported every detail. Petipa had to keep the highest standards of excellence and perfection, and he did. Tsar Nicholas I attended Petipa's debut performance in October 1847 and a week later presented him with an Imperial gift of a ruby and diamond ring, the first Royal gift in Petipa's long career. The Russian Emperor's treasury (who at the time was the world's wealthiest person) - lavished millions of rubles a year on the Imperial Ballet and Opera, and demanded opulent ballets with perfect technique. Petipa became the Imperial Chief Ballet Master and principal choreographer until 1903 - at 85 years of age.
When Petipa in early 1869 was asked by an Imperial Special Commission to mount a Spanish-themed work he suggested that Ludwig Minkus write the music for the ballet he was considering, a tale from Cervantes' Don Quixote. I read on Minkus - he was also an interesting man. Ludwig Minkus was born on March 23, 1826, in Vienna (at the time the capital of the Austrian Empire.) Minkus' father was a wholesale wine merchant and owned in a district of Vienna a restaurant with its own orchestra. Ludwig started playing the violin at age four and made his public debut at a recital at the age of 8. Later he had an orchestra that competed with another Viennese conductor, the young Johann Strauss, II. In 1853 Ludwig immigrated to St. Petersburg to be the conductor of the orchestra for Prince Nikolai Yusupov. He went on to serve as conductor and principal violinist in the orchestra of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, and was then promoted to the prestigious position of Inspector of the Imperial Theatre Orchestras in Moscow. Below photo of Ludwig Minkus (1826-1917) taken between 1865-1870.
Minkus was an excellent choice to compose the music for the Don Quixote ballet. He was a connoisseur of ballet craft. His music bubbling like Champagne invited artists to dance. Petipa and Ludwig worked well together to create cheerful music and dances in the Spanish and Gypsy styles. Ludwig Fyodorovich Minkus (also known as Leon Minkus) became known as one of the greatest ballet composers who co-created with Petipa some of the most famous of classical ballets including La Source (1866, composed jointly with Leo Delibes,) Don Quixote (1869) and La Bayadere (1877.) Today, Minkus' ballet music is still quite popular and performed in the traditional classical ballet repertory. Cervantes' novel had been adapted into a ballet several times: in Austria in 1740, in Vienna in 1780, in 1809 in St. Petersburg, in 1839 in Berlin and in 1843 in Turin, Italy. For this new production Minkus reworked and expanded the score and supplied music filled with a great variety of Spanish-styled flair. The premiere of Don Quixote on 26th December 1869 for the ballet of the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow was a resounding success. Below painting of the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in 1939 by Alexandr Benois, Russian (1870-1960) followed by the current Bolshoi Theatre and interiors.
The Don Quixote Ballet was so successful that Petipa and Minkus wrote a revival libretto in 1871 which was shown at the St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre and became a classic. It still enchants the public today and is presented in various productions by different companies all over the world. Petipa went on to create spectacular ballets such as Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, the Nut Cracker, and many others. Petipa married and had 3 children. At the age of 76 he received Russian citizenship while permitted to keep his French citizenship. A year later he worked with Peter Tchaikovsky to stage the ballet Swan Lake. He is a legend, a lord of the dance, and came to be known as "the father of Russian ballet." His work is in the repertoire of most current companies. He retired in 1903 and spent his final years in Crimea where he died on 14 July 1910 at the age of 92. He is buried in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. Below photos of the Mariinsky Theatre circa 1859, Petipa's grave, the Don Quixote's Dream Scene at the Mariinsky and the playbill.
Don Quixote has been staged in many versions, with different music scores and choreography. In 1900 Alexander Gorsky staged a revival of the ballet with music from French composer Antoine Simon. A modern version in 1965 was created by American choreographer George Balanchine to the music of Nicolas Nabokov. In 1966 Rudolf Nureyev danced and choreographed the ballet for Vienna. In 1980 Mikhail Baryshnikov mounted his version of the ballet as well. I always loved watching Mikhail dancing (born in Latvia in 1948.) He truly is one of the greatest dancers of his generation with flawless technique and incredible high jumps. He seems to float across the stage. Misha is a superlative dancer combining balance, control and artistry. He is semi-retired for now as he opened in 2005 the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City, where he is active. Below are photos of Mikhail Baryshnikov in his younger years, dancing the Don Quixote ballet and receiving the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance's Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award at Buckingham Palace on November 16, 2022, presented by Camilla, the Queen Consort (her first solo reception since she assumed her new role.) Camilla, wearing a ballerina brooch on her coat, told him "It's a great honor to be able to give you the award. Nobody deserves it more."
Below is the YouTube clip of Mikhail that indicated to me last summer that I was looking for the Don Quixote ballet. Looking at the Atlanta playbill I was pleased to see that the choreographer Yuri Possokhov (born in Lugansk, Ukraine) and the artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin (born in Rostov, Russia) had based their Don Quixote production of March 17-19, 2023, after Petipa and Minkus.
Saturday March 18, 2023 was a cool but sunny day in Atlanta. We arrived in plenty of time to walk around the foyer and take some pictures. As you can see from the photo of my grandaughter and me walking toward the orchestra seating of the theatre that she is about as tall as me at 9 years old (I am 5ft 3.) She takes after her mother who, in the photograph, is 6 ft tall with heels.
Another lovely scene from the ballet is Kitri's Entrance in Act I. It is danced by the talented Manuela Nunez in the video below. She is an Argentine-British ballerina born in Buenos Aires on March 23, 1982 and now principal dancer at the Royal Ballet in London. Drawn from an episode in Part II of the Cervantes' novel this was a two hour but fast moving ballet. I enjoyed the vintage and cheerful Minkus music. The lavish and colorful costumes, the many male dancers (more than in other ballets.) the flamenco dancers, the cheeky humor and the comedy were delightful. Sancho Panza, the trusted sidekick and squire of Don Quixote, brought many laughs. The horse Rocinante, a puppet manned by two Atlanta Ballet students, was entertaining as well. Don Quixote by the Atlanta Ballet had been a fast-paced production with impressive dancing and amusing comedy. I was pleased to have found this enchanting ballet in Atlanta.
Photos courtesy the Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta Constitution and Arts Atlanta as photos were not allowed in the theatre.


DJan said...

This was a fabulous commentary of this ballet, its history and how much it has given the entire world. If I have a chance to see this opera, I certainly will. And I LOVED seeing Baryshnikov dance in his younger years. He did indeed float as he danced. Thank you for providing me with such a treat, dear friend. :-)

Elephant's Child said...

I am so glad that you saw it - and grateful that you shared your extensive research with us. Many, many thanks.

Anonymous said...

This was another amazing look behind the scenes of a stunning production based on a historic novel - thanks so much for sharing. Loved the video of Mikhail……and seeing you with your sweet granddaughter and elegant daughter. Lovely day out I’m sure.
Enjoy Springtime and stay well dear.

Lowcarb team member said...

Simply fabulous, how wonderful to see this ballet.
Many thanks too for all the research you have included in your post.

Enjoy the remainder of Sunday and happy Spring wishes.

All the best Jan

Mae Travels said...

What a fascinating acccount of this artistic history. I was uninformed about every bit of it. Opera and ballet were so much more central to cultural and general life in the 19th century — before recorded entertainment took over!

Thanks for this great post.

Your comment on my blog was the first I had heard about the horrifying shooting so terribly close to your home! I hope you are not traumatized (though you are clearly safe).

best… mae at

claude said...

Hello Vagabonde !
Je repasserai pour lire cette publication.
Je t'ai envoyé un mail à deux adresses différentes, je ne sais si tu en a reçu au moins un.
Je t'embrasse

David said...

Hi Vagabonde, Once again your research into a given topic is both remarkable and thorough! I enjoyed reading Don Quixote but I must lack the imagination it takes to translate it into a ballet or to understand what's going on in many of the scenes... I guess I prefer words although I do truly appreciate the skill and beauty of ballet performances. My wife on the other hand, is fully mesmerized by both the performances and the story behind them. I've never been able to dance and have no rhythm but I do love listening to a variety of music genres. There is no doubt the the best ballet dancers have more skill, dedication, coordination, strength and stamina than most professional athletes... Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Nadezda said...

Dear Vagabonde! You've written a real essay on the history of the Don Quixote ballet. Cervantes' book has been my favorite book since my school days. I liked the culture of Spain. I enjoyed reading your stories about Petipa and Minkus and watching YouTube excerpts from the ballet. I have not been to the ballet of the Mariinsky Theater for a long time, now I have other worries. I'm glad you didn't get hurt in the Nashville incident. Be safe and healthy.

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