San Francisco Ballet

'Don Quixote'

by Toba Singer

March 21, 2003 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

“Getting there is half the fun” went a slogan for a railroad or bus company several decades ago when getting somewhere distant actually was fun. Getting to the Opera House for San Francisco Ballet's "Don Quixote" on Saturday night was the drama segment in an otherwise comedic evening.

Traffic on Franklin Street, a main San Francisco thoroughfare, was blocked in all directions by irritable cops dug into the overtime trough. They were deployed in thick phalanxes, or sat nodding off in city buses parked in front of the ballet building. Franklin Street is also the street that stands between the courtyard at the North end of the Opera House and the San Francisco Ballet building. Anti-war demonstrators straggled past, heady with the misapprehension that they had closed down “business as usual” on that street. As ordinary pedestrians sought to cross the street, cops swore at them just because they added volume to the scene, and threatened to smash their faces in if they took “so much as one step off the curb,” even on the green light. It was tense.

I managed to perch on one of the upper steps of the ballet building, where I observed one of the dancers pleading with the cops to let her cross. “I have to get to my dressing room. The show must go on!” she quipped a bit too sweetly, considering… A cop, faking concern, suggested that she walk seven blocks in another direction and then five back in order to take herself to a destination 50 steps from where they stood. Her companion, another dancer, ran back to get his camera to capture the standoff.

I will follow SFB Principal Muriel Maffre anywhere, and so when I noticed her quietly pad down Franklin Street toward Grove, I did. She miraculously found a break in the ranks of the cops and contretemped her way across the street. As helicopters hovered overhead and sirens screamed in the distance, I stole across in her shadow. After all, if the show must go on, the reviewers must go in!

With the entrance of Benjamin Pierce as Don Quixote and Pablo Piantino as his Sancho Panza, a different era opened before us. Even with all the fine dancing by the entire company, the chemistry between these two stage friends was possibly the best of the evening. A nice rapport developed between the gallant, if farsighted Pearce and the Harpo Marx-like Piantino, framed in a set hung with dechirée red valances. Red was a color that was overused in some cases and underused in others in this production, but more on that later.

The match of Kristin Long (Kitri) with Gonzalo Garcia (Basilio) was a curiosity, but once they warmed up a bit, augured well for the evening’s pattern of casting experienced women with neophyte men. Long was clean to a fault, and seemed to work overtime against her height in the first scene, trying to look tall instead of accepting her height and alternatively putting her emphasis more into the character work of being the story's coquette. Garcia, al contrario, with hair flying, was rakish, not very clean, not holding positions, but gave us big, bold and boisterous finishes. If they didn’t quite make it work initially, as time went on, they lost the boundaries that separated them and seemed to at last “see” one another.

Katita Waldo’s entrance in black as the street dancer was an exemplar for all to see. She fully captured her character and was therefore able to fully share with the audience what she had caught. She and her handsome partner, Moises Martin, made for a sizzling pair, and though Martin seemed determined to give all his attention to wielding his cape in what I learned are “veronicas” (difficult manipulations of the cape overhead), Ms. Waldo was able to tease a smile out of him just at the right moment.

In spite of being troubled with too much distracting incidental background choreography and hobbled by costumes that did not contrast enough with those of the principals, the corps danced its collective heart out. This time, my eye kept returning to Kester Cotton, whose work improves by leaps and bounds with each new season.

Among the best-coached and executed roles was that of Gamache, the gentleman Lorenzo (Val Caniparoli) intends Kitri to marry. Danced by Damian Smith, he contrived to either minimize or exaggerate his gestures so that they worked to completely emasculate any potentially macho connotation. The trio danced by Lorenzo, Quixote and Gamache was a special comic delight, with Pierce’s Quixote making certain to remain one beat behind in gallant deference to his partners--or just possibly under the rubric of gallantry--upstage them?

In Act II, Pascal Molat and Sherri LeBlanc thrilled us with their Gypsy Leader and Gypsy Woman interpretations. He positively stole the scene with his precise and focused tricks. Her dancing was so different from what she has done in previous roles where control was showcased: She was gay, spirited and lithe. Then she easily transitioned into a more legato mood without losing any of the integrity of the character.

The women’s corps did exceptionally well as the Driads. One of my favorite dancers, Clara Blanco, whose Dancing Doll in "The Nutcracker" was unmatched--gave us a Cupid that was even more and fetching and delectable.

The costumes were quite stunning throughout--but the colors in some instances were oddly combined. If the toreadors had to wear red, and I think they did, then I’d prefer that the principals wear bright yellow or some other contrasting color so that when Kitri ‘s turns are performed right in front of them, she isn’t lost in a sea of red. When Kitri and Basilio perform the Grand Pas de Deux in the wedding scene, do they really have to wear white just because it’s a wedding? It washes them out and this is perhaps when I’d prefer to see Kitri in some red. I’d suggest losing the bright panels that hang from above like kid’s birthday decorations, because they distract from, rather than highlight, the main event.

Special mention must be made of Maffre’s Mercedes. From the very moment she enters -- certain and large -- through her poses, every one of them perfectly held, to her extraordinary full cambré back with both arms, where she spreads every rib in her upper body showing us a fear factor of zero, to her mastery of complicated rhythms, to her burning-down-the-house dehors arabesques, she is completely present and in charge. If there were ever two arguments against a French boycott, they are Maffre and Molat!

Long’s Kitri’s gazillion fouettés, Garcia’s Basilio’s faked death and the overall zest of the finale gave us, if not a polished gem, certainly a glittering diamond-in-the-rough.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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