What a way to launch the Royal Ballet’s American tour: Carlos Acosta’s gorgeously staged, cleverly choreographed, magnificently danced production of Don Quixote.

Carlos Acosta (Basilio) and Marianela Núñez (Kitri) © Johan Persson | ROH
Carlos Acosta (Basilio) and Marianela Núñez (Kitri)
© Johan Persson | ROH

The ballet chronicles episodes from the Spanish classic with its chivalric promptings, deeds of derring do, romance and rowdy, life-loving townsfolk. The production had it all, its debt richly paid to its Castilian original not only in its foot-tappingly rhythmic score, its plenteous use of castanets and tambourines, its riotous costumes, but most strikingly of all, its supremely effective translation of a Spanish dance idiom into that of classical ballet.

The mastery over the danced narrative was so very complete, so apparently effortless, that the dancers could focus on acting out the story: the net result was that this wasn’t just one of those occasions where the plot is a mere excuse to show-case dance (as is too often the case): they were engaged in telling a story with their bodies, and telling it with panache.

Not that we could ever forget the dancing. And what dancing! Carlos Acosta partnered Marianela Nuñez as those irresistible young lovers, Basilio and Kitri: he a whirlwind of balletic power, with a hint of ‘devil-may-care’ grace. Bravura is the only word to describe his technique and his persona: jetés, tours en l’air, cabrioles, every conceivable leap and elevation, all carried off with negligent ease and indeed enjoyment. Nuñez was arch stylishness itself, capturing the flightiness and flirtatiousness of the character with a myriad of steps and a dynamic carriage of the upper body, her jetés lissom and long, her turns, dazzling successions of revolutions triumphantly achieved. In their flirtatious striving to outdo one another or show each other off (thank heavens for all those pas de deux), it was hard to look anywhere else. Their command of rhythm was so complete that they took liberties with the music, ramping up an accelerando, lingering with the syncopations and rubatos of the music, surprising with a pause before taking a final posture.

Marianela Núñez (Kitri) © Johan Persson | ROH
Marianela Núñez (Kitri)
© Johan Persson | ROH
With a completely different physicality to Acosta’s, taut where the Cuban is free, Japanese Ryoichi Hirano was the Matador de Toros in chief. He owned that role. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a combination before: clean lines, high and sustained elevations, rhythmic virtuosity and to cap it all, powerful sensuality. He was, in his gold braid chaquetilla and his promenade cape, the epitome of balletic machismo, a positively smouldering presence. It's no surprise that a lady of the corps swooned at his glance.

The whole company was glorious: indeed the townsfolk not only joyously danced themselves, fans fluttering, tambourines jingling, backs exaggeratedly arched in demonstrative flamenco style, but became the audience for the principals – hand-clapping, foot-tapping, with the occasional shout. The gypsies of Act II had an appropriately wilder physical expression, something dark and intense, ballet with an edge of danger. The choreography was supremely vibrant throughout: of the kind which fully privileged dancing with apparent abandon. Yes, we were almost willing to suspend our disbelief in its difficulty since they made it look so darned easy. There were several lambs to the slaughter too – the character parts of Quixote, Gamache and the delightfully ungainly Sancho Panza (Philip Mosley), a harassed but delighted rotundity amidst the twirling, whirling villagers.

Moreover, there was a meta-element for those who like to take their cultural pleasures more cerebrally. The Don, Christopher Saunders’ initial vision of the ideal woman Dulcinea is of the ballerine blanche (Kristen McNally), Wilis-like and fluttering in long romantic tutu; by Act II, she, along with other dryads, are in beaded classical tutus, a veritable torpedo of pointe-work to his addled imagination: no more ethereal fluttering but crisp pirouettes, whipped fouetté turns, and strong diagonals (thanks also to Melissa Hamilton and Meaghan Grace Hinkis). An injection of Petipa classicism en pointe. Ideals in ballet advance and change: by the wedding scene, Kitri and Basilio were also classically attired.

© Johan Persson | ROH
© Johan Persson | ROH

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, there was a horse. Not a live one but still. And a gigantic windmill. The dancers basked under a Mediterranean sun (all credit to Tim Hatley for the splendid sets), they danced on the streets, and they even danced atop the bar in the tavern. In short, they all looked as if they were having enormous fun in seventeenth-century Castille. And why wouldn’t they? I know we were. Transported. A few months ago the Kennedy Center hosted a celebratory festival of Iberian culture. Tonight’s Don Quixote was a belated offering but surely one of the most magnificent of all. Bravo.