The Australian Ballet: Don Quixote review [Melbourne 2023]

From stage to screen and back to stage, Don Quixote lives anew, lovingly and lavishly refreshed in this highly theatrical, wonderfully entertaining production. As The Australian Ballet celebrates their 60th anniversary year, the additional landmark of 50 years since the iconic filmed version of Don Quixote makes ideal timing for this eagerly anticipated new staging. 

Dually helmed by Rudolf Nureyev and Robert Helpmann, and recorded at Essendon airport during a heatwave, the movie version of Don Quixote went on to be hailed as a classic of dance on film. 

Nureyev’s Don Quixote had already entered the repertoire of The Australian Ballet, with Barry Kay recreating his movie costumes for the stage, and Anne Fraser designing sets in 1993. Those settings were observed to be well past their prime in the 2013 season of Don Quixote, making this new production both necessary and very welcome. Designed by Richard Roberts, and produced on a very impressive scale, the new settings bring Kay’s movie sets back to vivid life. 

Kay’s costumes remain a key attraction in their own right, a highlight being the pristine tutus in Dulcinea’s Garden, which stand in crisp contrast to the characterful ruffled skirts worn throughout the majority of the scenes.

Nureyev’s choreography is distinguished by a healthy sense of spirited fun. Featured roles for a multitude of dancers bring not just a continuous whirl of entertainment but also clearly demonstrate the current strength of the company. A total of five Principal Artists were seen on opening night, each imbuing their roles, small or large, with star quality and brightly polished technical prowess. Generous helpings of corps work are tightly accurate and warmly atmospheric. 

A brief prologue sees Don Quixote spark the dreams that begin his determined quest. The Don’s visions are shown as projected snippets from the movie before his reveries are interrupted by Sancho Panza, who is promptly enlisted as squire. 

In a second homage to the film, the credits for the ballet are shown, movie-style, on a full-size silver screen, before dissolving to the live stage setting. 

The Australian Ballet’s new music director Jonathan Lo makes the strongest possible impression, leading Orchestra Victoria in a sumptuous performance of Minkus’ melodic score, ebulliently orchestrated by John Lanchbery.

Principal Artist Adam Bull adds another character role to his credits, starring here in the title role. Bull capably conveys the knight errant’s noble countenance, bringing gentle dignity to the well-intentioned, if ever so slightly batty, dreamer. Bull goes on to prove a hardy live-action stuntman, swinging precariously from the set as Don Quixote bravely battles a formidable windmill. 

Returning to the Melbourne stage after family leave, Ako Kondo is in absolutely stellar form as the vivacious Kitri, dancing the role with virtuosic skill while exuding magnetic stage presence. 

In her secondary role of “dream” Dulcinea, Kondo instantly transforms from the hearty Kitri into a fragile beauty, memorably displaying the full spectrum of talent required by the dual roles. 

Chengwu Guo completes the well-proven dream team, the two Principal Artists ramping up the spectacle of Nureyev’s playful choreography while fully capturing the sense of dancing for the sheer love of dance.  

Blessed with a showy pas de deux in each of the three acts, Guo and Kondo particularly thrill in act one with the single-handed overhead lifts where time appears to stand still. Superb individually and even more sensational together, the pair’s performance drew roars of appreciation from the opening night audience, and was a significant factor behind the all too rare standing ovation at the ballet’s conclusion.  

Further Principal Artist highlights see Amy Harris as the Street Dancer, swiftly conjuring a vivid characterisation. Sharni Spencer is luxury casting indeed as the Dryad Queen, dancing the cameo role with pristine elegance. The opportunity to see Spencer and Kondo together provides briefly snatched glimpses of dance heaven.

Character roles bring further enjoyment by adding merry humour to proceedings. Timothy Coleman is a good sport as Sancho Panza, gamely allowing himself to be tossed overhead by the men. Brett Simon provides the obstacle to Kitri and Basilio’s happiness, with his Lorenzo determined to see a “better” match for his precious daughter. All feathers and frills, Paul Knobloch comically brings out the peacock vanity of rich suitor Gamache with flair. 

Nureyev’s choreography includes any number of divertissements while still maintaining the flow of the storytelling, relatively simple as the romantic tale may be. 

In further featured roles, Jill Ogai and Riley Lapham work neatly in tandem, dancing in vibrant style as the Girlfriends. Nathan Brook brings sullen strength to head toreador Espada. Yuumi Yamada shines as an adorable Cupid. Marcus Morelli brings a characterful energy to the leader of the Romanis. In act three, Dana Stephenson and Jospeh Romancewicz bring fresh energy as the Lead Fandango dancers. As Lead Bridesmaid, Rina Nemoto impressively holds her own with a solo within the sequence of the grand pas de deux

All this, plus a show-stopping horse, expertly designed, manufactured, and puppeteered by A Blanck Canvas. 

A celebration of the pure pleasure of dance, Don Quixote is set to delight and enthral legions of ballet lovers.

Don Quixote plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 25 March 2023. For tickets, click here.

Don Quixote plays at Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 8 – 25 April 2023. For tickets, click here

The performance of Don Quixote on Friday 24 March 2023 will be available as a live stream. For information and tickets, click here

The Melbourne Don Quixote cast sheet can be read online.

Photos: Rainee Lantry

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