Don Quixote, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, May 11 and 12.

Don Quixote is all fluff and high spirits. Based glancingly on the Cervantes novel, the ballet foregrounds the romance between Kitri, an innkeeper’s daughter, and the impecunious barber Basilio. Kitri’s father would prefer her to marry money, which turns up in the form of Gamache, a fool.

Crusading knight Don Quixote bumbles upon the scene and complications ensue before everything is sorted. A fancy wedding entirely out of keeping with Kitri and Basilio’s meagre fortunes follows but what the heck. This is a rom-com, a fantasy and a chance for dancers to show off their classical chops while having fun.

Gakuro Matsui, Chihiro Nomura and dancers of West Australian Ballet in Don Quixote. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Chihiro Nomura and Gakuro Matsui, centre, in Lucette Aldous’s production of Don Quixote for West Australian Ballet. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

West Australian Ballet’s production is a judiciously slimmed-down staging created in 2010 by Lucette Aldous, a celebrated Kitri in her day. It could be argued that bigger is better when it comes to Don Q: hordes of merry townsfolk, a substantial band of gypsies and a gorgeously attired corps in the vision scene can do much to buoy the featherweight narrative. Nevertheless, Aldous’s production is mostly effective theatrically, albeit with one big, regrettable loss. Don Quixote’s reverie, in which he sees Kitri as his beloved Dulcinea, is ruthlessly pulled back to feature only the leading characters. The scene lacks meaning and magic.

In Allan Lees’s warm design the first image is of a huge page flapping and floating in the air as if torn from a gigantic book: Don Quixote is dreaming of chivalrous deeds. Later, when the Don famously tilts at windmills, pages swirl about evocatively as the wind howls. It’s an elegant solution in a production that moves swiftly from scene to scene. After their very brief introduction Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho Panza head off on their adventures, the Don seated, endearingly, on a wine cask. Within a minute or so the main action has begun in San Sebastian’s town square.

At the first performance newly minted principal dancers Chihiro Nomura and Gakuro Matsui were sweet, charming lovers whose appeal was that of light playing on dappled leaves rather than the midday-sun swelter of the second cast Kitri and Basilio, soloists Florence Leroux-Coléno and Cuban-trained newcomer Oscar Valdés.

Gakuro Matsui and Chihiro Nomura in Don Quixote. Photo by Sergey Pevnev (5)

Chihiro Nomura and Gakuro Matsui in Don Quixote. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Nomura and Matsui are both finely tuned classicists – and Matsui a fine partner – who made light work of the barrage of small beaten steps and flurries of manèges and pirouettes that keep the principals very busy indeed. The next night Leroux-Coléno and Valdés turned up the wattage with a knowing and vivacious account of Kitri and Basilio. True, they over-indulged themselves with the tricky one-arm lift in Act I – Valdés held Leroux-Coléno aloft, twice, for longer than I’ve seen anywhere and it was frankly just showing off, although one had to admire the chutzpah. Well, perhaps Li Cunxin, now artistic director of Queensland Ballet, held the moment just as long when appearing as Basilio for The Australian Ballet in 1999 but he was entitled – it was his farewell performance. Less would have been more for Leroux-Coléno and Valdés at that point.

At times Valdés’s dash trumped finesse but his ebullience and daring are exciting. He gets thrilling height and speed in his double saut de basque and when he danced the Lead Gypsy on opening night the temperature on stage rose dramatically.

Valdés was well matched with Leroux-Coléno, whose good humour and spark made her a witty, flavourful, memorable Kitri. It is beyond understanding why she is not a principal artist in this company.

Andre Santos was the highly enjoyable Gamache in the first performance and a high-octane Lead Gypsy the next night, tossing in an airborne cartwheel as if in answer to the “get that” 540 (a complicated air turn that comes from martial arts) with which Valdés punctuated his Lead Gypsy pyrotechnics. Santos is leaving at the end of this season after eight years with WAB to return to Brazil and will be sorely missed, particularly in light of some disappointing performances from higher ranked dancers on Thursday and Friday. The company is looking somewhat uneven.

Principal Matthew Lehmann did not appear match fit for the role of the matador Espada in the first performance. At the second, Alessio Scognamiglio heroically carried off Espada’s unforgiving pink satin outfit with oodles of the matador’s self-regarding glamour, displayed in luxurious backbends and arrogant strides about the stage. Brooke Widdison-Jacobs, also a principal artist, was miscast as the flashy street-dancer Mercedes in the second cast but at the opening demi-soloist Polly Hilton was alluring in the role. Swings and roundabouts.

Looking further down the ranks, corps de ballet member Carina Roberts continues to make her mark on the company and was a fleet, enchanting Cupid in the vision scene and the alternative Gamache, corps member Adam Alzaim, was goofily appealing. The Don is something of a dancing role in this production and both Christian Luck and Christopher Hill affectingly captured a man who still has some physical vigour while his faculties dim.

Minkus’s score may not be a masterpiece but it’s cheerful earworm material and West Australian Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Canadian guest conductor Judith Yan gave a rollicking account of it.

Don Quixote ends in Perth on May 27. Performances in Albany, June 24; Kalgoorlie, June 30; and Bunbury, July 7.

Ballet at the Quarry

Five by Night, West Australian Ballet, Perth, February 10

The Quarry Amphitheatre is one of the loveliest performing arts venues in the world. The former limestone quarry is situated in bushland with views of the city beyond and on a balmy night – and that’s pretty much expected in February – there is nothing finer than to sit on one of the terraced rows with a picnic and some delicious West Australian wine as the sun goes down.

(Idle thought: is the only good thing about Western Australia’s refusal to participate in daylight saving that Quarry performances can start at 8pm rather than 9pm?)

Not surprisingly, West Australian Ballet’s long-standing annual Quarry season is a perennial favourite with Perth audiences and indeed for many may be their only ballet experience of the year. So be it. The season is usually a sell-out or close to it and the relaxed atmosphere means a different kind of programming can be offered than that in WAB’s home theatre, His Majesty’s.

The amphitheatre celebrates its 30th anniversary in November this year and WAB has been with it pretty much all the way. It’s a valuable tradition.

Polly Hilton performing In Black in Five by Night Ballet at the Quarry. Photo Sergey Pevnev

Polly Hilton in Andre Santos’s In Black. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

This year there are five short works: two by David Dawson, whose work hasn’t been seen at WAB for 16 years; one by European-based Australian dancer and choreographer Craig Davidson; and two from WAB dancers. One of the latter pieces is a group effort, something that could seem a recipe for disaster but which in fact was light-hearted and enjoyable.

Soloist Andre Santos is responsible for the clear standout of the night, In Black. It’s an extension of a piece he made in 2014 for WAB’s choreographic development program Genesis and it’s tremendous fun, giving an ambitiously large group of dancers – 13 – a fizzingly fast workout. Despite his relative inexperience as a choreographer Santos has an excellent eye. His construction is sound as he confidently groups and regroups dancers to concentrate the eye on the whole, on smaller gatherings or on individuals. The fact that he has created his dance on eight women and five men tells something in itself: he understands the interest one can get from unequal numbers even in completely abstract work. And he would appear to be pragmatic. The truth is that WAB’s women are stronger at present as a group than the men. Why not use more of them?

Perhaps the most striking feature of In Black was its dynamics. Santos has dancers moving very quickly indeed to the beat – the music is a mixed bag of tracks by French composers René Aubry and Woodkid and Canadian dancer and composer Davidson Jaconello – and then he throws in a luxurious leg extension that stretches not only the body but time and rhythm too. And then the dancer is off again. It’s exhilarating.

In Black features a leading couple (Polly Hilton and Christian Luck on the night I attended), a trio of women (Sarah Hepburn, Kymberleigh Cowley and Vida Polokov) and four male-female couples (Florence Leroux-Coléno and Liam Green, Meg Parry and Adam Alzaim, Victoria Maughan and Alessio Scognamiglio, Phebe Sleeman and Jesse Homes).

Santos gives the women terrifically lively material and celebrates their attack. I loved that they are not manhandled endlessly and that he gives the four secondary men a punchy quartet in which they occasionally support one another. All the dancers were wonderful but Hilton has to be singled out for her leggy glamour and to-the-edge fearlessness.

In Black closed Five by Night in style. The title, by the way, is echoed in the costume design, also by Santos. He put the men in sleek tops and shorts and the women in elegant variations of little black dresses.

Earlier in the evening Hilton was also prominent in To the Pointe, choreographed by WAB dancers including Santos with Melissa Boniface, Victoria Maughan, Meg Parry, Jayne Smeulders and breakdancer and guest artist Pepito. To the Pointe isn’t a ballet for the ages but it is the kind of entertainment that suits the Quarry. In a mash-up of classical moves, gymnastics and street dance, Pepito wowed with virtuosic spins on head and shoulders and Smeulders amazed with super-fast backflips and a no-hands cartwheel. Smeulders is apparently to retire this year but looks as if she could continue for much longer. She turned 40 last year but is ageless.

Matthew Lehmann and Sandy Delasalle-Scannella performing On the Nature of Daylight in Five by Night Ballet at the Quarry. Photo Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Lehman and Sandy Delasalle in On the Nature of Daylight. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

David Dawson’s 5, to an arrangement by David Coleman of music by Adolphe Adam for Giselle (you’d be hard-pressed to recognise it), puts three women in the crispest of white tutus by Yumiko Takeshima and gives them two male supporters. It’s an energetic start to Five by Night, danced with exceptional verve, polish and poise at the performance I saw by the trio of Sarah Hepburn, Chihiro Nomura and Carina Roberts. It was the first appearance in their roles for twins Oliver and Matthew Edwardson, who needed to impose themselves rather more strongly and precisely on the classical material.

Dawson’s On the Nature of Daylight is a pas de deux for WAB ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle and principal artist Matthew Lehmann, who last year had a moment with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s La Pluie. On the Nature of Daylight is notable for its difficult lifts, Max Richter score and Lehmann’s strong partnering of the elegant Delasalle but is more a pièce d’occasion than anything else.

Craig Davidson’s Ambiguous Content, for four couples (Florence Leroux-Coléno and Alessio Scognamiglio, Nikki Blain and Andrew Radak, Chihiro Nomura and Oliver Edwardson, Brook Widdison-Jacobs and Christopher Hill), is highly competent but generic neo-classical dance. Leroux-Coléno lit up the stage whenever she appeared – she is a wonderful artist – and Widdison-Jacobs looked sleek and refined, although also somewhat chilly and abstracted. She had reason to look distant, however, as she had the misfortune to be manipulated by one man, then two, then three. Why do (mostly male) choreographers insist on this tediousness?

Five by Night ends on February 27.

Disclosure: I am a member of West Australian Ballet’s artistic review panel, which makes independent reports to the WAB board on artistic matters.