Ballet is funny: Don Quixote at PNB

Allen Galli as Sancho Panza catches some airAs a lifelong lover and sometime student of ballet (the particulars being a long story), even I sometimes find the stilted, historically bound theatrical language of the classic story ballet challenging. Which made the production of Don Quixote I saw last week at Pacific Northwest Ballet extra delightful.

At the risk of raving, it was the most entertaining theater and ballet any lover of either could wish for. I haven't laughed so hard so often or spontaneously uttered WOW so many times in a row since, well okay, the last Republican debate.

Choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky for the Dutch National Ballet, this production is gorgeous and beautifully danced but it's also genuinely funny.

Tom Skerritt and Allen Galli as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza respectively bring a refreshingly prosaic, however stylized, character to the production. Their comic timing, particularly Galli's, is impeccable, in fact he risks running away with every scene he's in as it's impossible not to watch him and giggle at his "bits".

At one point, handed a tambourine, he bangs it three times at the appropriate spot in the music, each time with a different flourish, finally tapping it on his hip while kicking the opposite leg spasmodically in the air. It's a tiny, throwaway moment but it manages to convey "slightly uncoordinated dude enjoying himself at the party".

In another "bit" he carefully observes the dancers while emulating their pliées, arms out front in first position, knees to the side and rear end poking backwards. Eventually, tiring of the effort he spies a stool and this time cleverly lowers himself onto it for a nice rest before rising again, arms in first.

It's the broadest of physical comedy but so apparently genuine and so unlike most ballets I could not stop laughing. You could almost hear people guffawing in recognition, "Ha! Yeah that's me right there, I need a beer." Importantly to the production's success in my opinion, it's moments like these that act as a kind of translator between highly skilled dancers and regular-folk audience members.

Speaking of stereotypes, I disagree with the New York Times review that faults Ratmansky's choreography on its "reflexive" Spanish bravura. Of course it's predictably Spanish! I would have been disappointed had there not been capes twirling, castanets clicking and "fans snapping". It's precisely what's called for to establish place, flavor and tone in this built-to-entertain, lighthearted interpretation of the story. Unless you see a lot of flamenco, how often do most of us get to enjoy that particular cultural trope and who cares if it's a bit trite? It's dazzling and fun.

I spontaneously jumped to my feet at the end for Rachel Foster and Seth Orza, both of whom conveyed a kind of expressive inner fire along with the prerequisites of precision, athleticism and artistic finesse. It's been a while since I've felt moved to stand. I didn't have to think about it.

Others in the audience seemed to share my enjoyment. It was satisfying to look out over a full house and  hear people laughing aloud at a ballet, whooping at jumps and turns, not to mention audibly gasping at scene changes.

The set from Amsterdam was impressive. From the opening shady, book-filled interior with a glimpse of brilliant blue sky and Spanish town outside that reminded me instantly of early David Hockney, to the film elements of windmills and an emotive, silent movie-referencing moon with a face, to the stark nightmare sequence in which cactus and Hieronymous Bosche costumes take the spotlight, switching breathtakingly fast to a green, Deco-like grotto, it felt often as much like a painting or an installation as a set.

Also, there were macho bullfighter-types in frilly pink corsets. And if you were Cupid, inexplicably hilarious bright blond flippy bangs à la Woman's Day magazine covers circa 1977. This was not just dance, this was theater. And okay yes, this is a rave review.
Pacific Northwest Ballet's Don Quixote

New York Times review