San Francisco Ballet opened its 86th repertory season with the lively, crowd-pleasing Don Quixote, a ballet inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ eponymous 17th century novel. Stagings of this ballet abound, from as early as 1740, but the majority stem from Alexander Gorsky’s 1900 restaging of Marius Petipa’s 1869 four-act, eight-scene ballet for the Bolshoi Theatre. San Francisco Ballet’s production dates from 2003, a joint effort by artistic director Helgi Tomasson and then-principal dancer (and now in-house choreographer) Yuri Possokhov. A 2012 revival brought the addition of stunning new costumes, created by Martin Pakledinaz, who died later that year, and I hope the company uses these beautiful costumes forever.

Mathilde Froustey in Tomasson/Possokhov's <i>Don Quixote</i> © Erik Tommason
Mathilde Froustey in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote
© Erik Tommason

Pakledinaz’ scenic design offers a Spanish town square, a gypsy encampment under the shadow of an enormous windmill, a dazzling nighttime glade, a tavern, all of which are never too visually busy, never too minimalist. Following a prologue where the bookish, aging Don Quixote (Jim Sohm) makes the decision to embark on his quest with his squire, Sancho Panza (Pascal Molat), the ballet opens in a Barcelona square, backlit with hills and a sea view, where an ensemble of gathered townspeople cavort and dance.

On opening night, Mathilde Froustey and Angelo Greco were perfectly cast as Kitri and Basilio, meeting all of the ballet’s challenges, the presage lifts on Greco’s part, and pre-fish-dive moments where Froustey must fling herself his way with utter abandon before he catches her and dips her. In Act I, when Kitri’s father, Lorenzo (Val Caniparoli) decides to match up his daughter with the wealthy but foppish Gamache, rather than the penniless Basilio, it sets off a comic caper, one that soon includes Don Quixote, who mistakes Kitri for Dulcinea, his idealized true love. Alexandre Cagnat was hilarious as a fussy, lavender-costumed Gamache. Pascal Molat as Sancho Panza brought equal comic brilliance to his role, wildly funny yet never buffoonish. When he was flung in the air from a blanket, the local men holding it like a firemen’s net, it was huge, campy fun to watch his ungainly figure be launched high and sprawl downward.

Froustey seems made for the role of Kitri, and brought to it verve and boundless energy. In her hand, the often-troublesome Spanish fan became like an extension of her own body. She opened it with a decisive thwap to pull Basilio’s attention away from her friends, and later it became an instant protective screen to keep him from becoming too amorous. Through the evening she excelled, mastering long holds in her arabesques, solid fouettés and grueling hops on pointe. Greco, as Basilio, also maintained top form. He brings a winning personality to the equation that never fails to charm, and to that, he added power-fueled jumps, tour jetés with split legs, impeccable cabrioles, articulated Spanish-tinted gestures and bravura finishes.

Mathilde Froustey in Tomasson/Possokhov's <i>Don Quixote</i> © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote
© Erik Tomasson

Another dazzler was Jennifer Stahl as Mercedes, who has become a stronger, more interesting dancer with each passing year. Partnering her was Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, convincing as the haughty, impeccable toreador, Espada.

James F. Ingalls’ lighting design hit all the right notes, particularly in the Act II scenes: a gypsy encampment by night, and a glade with the night sky twinkling with stars. In the encampment, Hansuke Yamamoto was a compelling, authoritative Gitano leader, with Kimberly Marie Olivier brilliant as the Gitana woman who danced passionately, desperately, in her love and longing for him. In the dream sequence that followed, an elegant Koto Ishihara as Queen of the Driads wafted through beautiful grands jetés leaps with a regal airiness, Norika Matsuyama was all adorable buoyancy as Cupid, and the ensemble dancers in sea-green tutus were pretty as a picture.

The Tavern scene brought more ensemble merriment and another impressive solo for Stahl’s Mercedes, who, as she danced, executed a series of slow backbends that seemed gravity defying. After Lorenzo and Gamache catch up with Kitri and Basilio, there’s laugh-out-loud hilarity when Basilio elegantly fakes his death as part of his quest to claim Kitri’s hand. Lorenzo finally concedes, they’re all happy, and Act III, Kitri’s Wedding, brings more dancing, more festivities. Ably assisted by conductor Martin West and San Francisco Ballet Orchestra’s stirring accompaniment in the grand pas de deux, Froustey and Greco did not disappoint. Gorgeous gravitas in the opening adagio, stunning en pointe turns, lyrical grace, powerful holds, leaps, catches – it was all there. This, in truth, is what you take home and mentally savor. San Francisco Ballet's Don Quixote is ultimately a winning production with surprising warmth and heart.

****1