Tokyo Ballet’s ‘Don Quixote’ revels in its Russian roots

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

From its inception, the ballet “Don Quixote” has been a global collaboration.

Based on an episode from the fancifully sprawling 17th-century Spanish novel “Don Quixote de la Mancha” by Miguel de Cervantes, it was originally choreographed by the Frenchman Marius Petipa, scored by Austrian composer Leon (aka Ludwig) Minkus and premiered at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1869. However, the basis for modern productions is a version of Petipa’s original that was reworked by the Russian choreographer Alexander Gorsky and first staged at the Bolshoi in 1900.

This weekend, The Tokyo Ballet presents an international “Don Quixote” with a decidedly Russian flair. On Friday and Sunday, the Bolshoi Ballet’s guest artists will take the lead roles, while the Saturday performance features the host company’s principal dancer Dan Tsukamoto as the romantic barber Basilio opposite its prima ballerina, Mizuka Ueno, as Kitri, the innkeeper’s daughter he’s in love with.

Overseeing initial rehearsals has been Yukari Saito, a Tokyo Ballet principal who has previously danced several roles in the ballet, including the lead, and also attended the Moscow State Academy of Choreography where she received her qualification as Teacher and Ballet-Master.

Saito further trained under the famed Russian dancer and artistic director Vladimir Vasiliev, whose updated version of “Don Quixote” the company first performed in 2001. Vasiliev arrived in Tokyo last week to oversee the final details of this weekend’s revival. Another arrival, Valery Ovsyanikov, will wield the baton to further the Russian influence.

During a short break in practice, Saito explained this ballet’s whimsical appeal, saying, “My son once said, ‘Mama, I like to watch your ballets, but I don’t like it that you always play a part where you die.’ His favorite ballet is ‘Don Quixote,’ since I don’t die and everyone looks happy. His words impressed me as I realized that there are very few ballets that are just for fun.”

Fun, indeed. The passionate escapades of a barber and his love collide with the adventure-seeking dreamer, Don Quixote, and his capricious side-kick, Sancho Panza, with predictably, well, “quixotic” results. A whirlwind of vivacious, passionate dance, humorous asides, the seductive rattle of castanets or staccato flamenco-style claps, spiraling leaps, continuous grand jetes and virtuoso fouettes — it leaves one breathless simply to write it.

Even so, The Tokyo Ballet version offers additional acceleration, as Saito explained, saying, “The fast tempo of the ballet is the most challenging. Our production is based on Gorsky’s, but Vasiliev has changed it so that it’s much faster, thus the audience becomes more involved and enjoys it even more.”

Adding to that excitement will be the chance to see the Bolshoi’s top soloists Anastasia Stashkevich and Vyacheslav Lopatin as Kitri and Basilio, respectively — although Dan Tsukamoto’s debut as Basilio on Saturday promises to be an exciting step-up for the company’s newest principal.

Speaking with The Japan Times early in the rehearsal process, Tsukamoto noted, “Roles of strong and unique characters like Basilio are much more challenging on the technical side and, to be honest, I’m still just fumbling my way through it. I try to challenge myself as best I can at the rehearsals and give my own interpretation and listen to the advice of the coaches.

“I know Yukari will correct my movements and add that ‘plus alpha’ to my performance. So I try not to be too set in my ways and to be open to suggestions of others.”

In addition, when Lopatin takes the lead Tsukamoto will also dance the demanding role of Espada, a rollicking bullfighter who, with his street-dancer girlfriend Mercedes, acts as a romantic foil to Kitri and Basilio, and whose portrayal on stage requires technical savvy, speed and precision.

It’s been a roller-coaster year for Tsukamoto since being made a principal in April 2013. After traveling to Sweden to train with the contemporary-dance legend, choreographer Mats Ek, and taking the stage with French ballerina Sylvie Guillem, in February he was coached by the choreographer and artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, John Neumeier, in “Romeo and Juliet” as part of The Tokyo Ballet’s 50th anniversary season.

Equally adept at contemporary or the classics, Tsukamoto regards “Don Quixote” as a welcome challenge, commenting, “Basilio is a strong main character who appears something like a tornado or a storm, and then vanishes. I want to make sure the essence of his character doesn’t get lost in the process. I hope I can insert my experience from the life I’ve led so far into my preparation, and try to do a good job while I’m on the stage.”

Finally, returning to this ballet’s fun factor, Saito concluded, “When ‘Don Quixote’ is over, the audience feels encouraged and it gives them the will to keep going. I really hope many people can come to experience this feeling and also appreciate the energy the dancers put into the performance to make this happen.”

“Don Quixote” will be staged at the U-port Hall in Gotanda, Tokyo, on Sept. 19 (7 p.m.), Sept. 20 (2 p.m.) and Sept. 21 (2 p.m.). For more information — including details of a performance on Sept. 27 in Yamaguchi City — visit nbs.or.jp (Japanese) or www.nbs.or.jp/english or email english@nbs.or.jp.