American Ballet Theatre’s Summer Season made its return to the Metropolitan Opera House for the first time in three years with a week of Don Quixote. This sunny romp through 16th-century Spain has only the most cursory relationship with Miguel de Cervantes’ novel. Instead, it’s become a great showcase for old-fashioned bravura dancing. It's no surprise that this ballet is a huge favorite with the Bolshoi Ballet. Bolshoi means “big” in Russian, and that’s the way they dance Don Quixote – grand, bold, in primary colors. Ballerinas like Maya Plisetskaya or Natalia Osipova set new benchmarks for how the role of Kitri should be danced, defined by huge, gravity-defying jumps and lightning-fast footwork. 

Skylar Brandt (Kitri) and Herman Cornejo (Basilio)
© Rosalie O’Connor

In contrast, ABT’s Don Quixote comes across as sweet but slight. Its effects are in shades of pastel. The performance I attended had excellent dancing, but the overall impression was like a Broadway show that’s been running for so long that the original magic is gone. Skylar Brandt (Kitri) was charming. She has a great stage face with the large eyes and a bright smile. Technically there wasn’t much she couldn’t do, although her jumps are on the small side. Her fouettés were excellent – very centered, with multiple pirouettes thrown in. The weakness was a certain lack of musicality. In Kitri's fan variation, I noticed that Brandt waved her fan and timed her échappés with little relation to the music.

Herman Cornejo (Basilio) is now 41 years old, and no longer the virtuoso trickster of years past. However, he is still the best dancer onstage. Like all great artists, he knows how to show off what he can do and hide what he can’t do. He no longer has much of an arabesque. His cabrioles are still air-splicing wonders. He now likes to do a series of decelerating pirouettes and shows off such gorgeous line and control that the audience starts applauding wildly. His partnering skills have improved – I remember the days when he struggled with the one-arm lifts. No such problems tonight.

Skylar Brandt (Kitri)
© Rosalie O’Connor

It’s one of the mysteries of ABT casting that another principal dancer (Cassandra Trenary) is mostly relegated to supporting solo roles. Trenary danced Mercedes/Queen of the Dryads and was wonderful in both – she is not the strongest technician (her Italian fouettés in the Dryad solo were a bit slow), but has lovely épaulement. Why is she not cast in anything this summer?

Breanne Granlund and Betsy McBride danced the wedding solos in what might be call ABT’s “style” – low-key, tasteful, without much personality and pizazz. McBride’s jumping solo is often a springboard for future Kitris (it was Natalia Osipova’s role before she graduated to Kitri), but McBride’s jumps were low and not very memorable. In contrast, Zimmi Coker and Elwince Magbitang as the Gypsy Couple seized the moment and made the most out of their solos. Their dancing had a hunger and energy that was refreshing.

ABT’s Met season has now been shortened to five weeks. Longtime Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie is retiring and Susan Jaffe is replacing him. This performance of Don Quixote was very typical of the last few years of the McKenzie reign – performances are marked more by competence than inspiration. The show has just gotten very tired.