Ballet narratives often end in tragedy so it is a refreshing change to experience a performance as full of joy as Carlos Acosta’s Don Quixote, especially when seeing this warm, sunny ballet on a bright summer’s day. With a short hop of imagination, I could have been transported into this affectionate caricature of 19th-century Spain complete with its bustling taberna, macho matadors and campfire guitars. One could feel the heat and sense the scent of citrus!

Emma Price and Javier Rojas (Gypsy Couple)
© Johan Persson

Acosta has shaped his Don Quixote into a Birmingham Royal Ballet vehicle of great dancing, comedic characterisation and seamless momentum. He once told me that men in Cuban audiences remained in the bar after the first interval because the second act was so uninteresting and Acosta’s many embellishments are clearly intended to keep it entertaining, ranging from live guitar music, vocal utterances of the performers and the removal of the Gypsy leader’s shirt (an ebullient performance by Javier Rojas partnering Eilis Small in a sensual duet). These simple expedients bring a dramatic sense of theatre to the proceedings.     

This production is also greatly enhanced by the excellent set and costume designs of Tim Hatley – the white and gold tutus for the dryads are glorious – and the video designs of Nina Dunn so aptly describe Don Quixote’s vision of the monstrous windmill. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia gave a luscious performance of Minkus’ score, as arranged for Acosta by Hans Vercauteren (who also composed the original music performed by three guest guitarists during the campfire sequence). Conductor Paul Murphy’s control of tempi was handled with great sensitivity to dancers’ needs (this became even more obvious when experiencing two back-to-back shows with differing dancer requirements).

Tom Rogers (Don Quixote) and Yvette Knight (Dulcinea)
© Johan Persson

Yaoqian Shang’s London debut as Kitri was a triumph, both technically and artistically, with her lightness of jump, the piston-like strength of her relevés and the supple plasticity of her back bringing authenticity to the signature elements of this classic ballerina role. There was ample chemistry in her interaction with Max Maslen’s Basilio, which worked in both comedic and romantic contexts. Each of their pas de deux was thoroughly absorbing, culminating in an outstanding grand pas, which they danced with charisma and precision. Bradford-born Maslen has been with BRB for a decade and he is an excellent partner (his one-armed presage lifts towards the end of Act 1 were impressively held – the second longer than the first). The insouciant characterisation of Basilio was convincing and he danced the variations with aplomb.

Laura Day is well-remembered as the daughter in Arthur Pita’s groundbreaking The Metamorphosis and her casting as Sancho Panza was a touch of genius. So well-disguised behind a full beard, Day was an excellent embodiment of Don Quixote’s wayward, rotund and jovial squire (and so much easier for the other performers to carry and throw in the air)! More comedy was provided by Kit Holder as Lorenzo, Kitri’s gold-digging father, and especially in the charismatic, wide-eyed expressiveness of Rory Mackay as the popinjay nobleman, Gamache (providing a gold standard for the role). Jonathan Payn doesn’t possess the willowy height normally associated with Don Quixote but this meant nothing given the air of righteous nobility he brought to his quest for Dulcinea. Alexander Yap gave a suitable air of red-blooded virility to the role of Espada, the famous matador, and the corps de ballet were beautifully synchronised as the dryads.

Brandon Lawrence (Espada) with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet
© Johan Persson

Performing Don Quixote is a challenge for any major ballet company since it needs a huge cast with many difficult soloist roles and Birmingham Royal Ballet has done well to accommodate these taxing requirements. Dancers are gypsy girls one moment and dryads the next (do they change in the wings?); and this Kitri was one of Kitri’s friends on the previous evening. It’s a ballet which promotes fast development and several characters were danced by artists in the early stages of their careers:  the fantasy role of Amour is performed by a male in Acosta’s production and here was an outstanding performance by Guadalajara-born Enrique Bejarano Vidal (a graduate from the Academie Princesse Grace in Monte Carlo), just in his second year with BRB. With an extra year of experience, Sofia Liñares stepped up from the corps de ballet to dance the challenging role of the street dancer, Mercedes, and Cheltenham-born Lucy Waine – who also joined BRB, from the Royal Ballet School, in 2020 – made a courageous attempt to tame the technical challenges of the Queen of the Dryads. 

These are all tough asks of any dancer so early in their careers but it also helps to build a resilient and strong company, which is clearly the continuing direction of travel for BRB under Acosta’s leadership. UK ballet needed a touring Don Quixote to both brighten up the repertoire and to open it up to new audiences. Acosta’s production certainly does the job.