On its first Australian tour La Scala has, in addition to Giselle, brought Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote. The contrasting choice is a savvy one: Don Quixote is such a crowd-pleaser with its lively score, scenes of bustling town life, colourful characters, and feel-good plot. The Nureyev touch also means there is some spectacular male dancing. Don Quixote has acted as something of a signature calling card for the company, and it is easy to see why – La Scala fills this production with hot-blooded, sparkling vitality.

Nicoletta Manni (Kitri) and Leonid Sarafanov (Basilio), La Scala Ballet's <i>Don Quixote</i> © Darren Thomas
Nicoletta Manni (Kitri) and Leonid Sarafanov (Basilio), La Scala Ballet's Don Quixote
© Darren Thomas

It helps that the sets and costumes (Raffaele Del Savio and Anna Anni) burst with colour. Act I’s town square was all whirring fans and rich plums, golds, and blood reds under a vibrant Spanish sun (Marco Filibeck’s lighting design). Act II invites us into a dark and exotic gypsy lair, only to melt into the verdant, sun-dappled garden of the Dryads, and Act III leads us through a smoky haze into a lamp-lit tavern.

Into this glowing world the La Scala corps poured, inhabiting it – almost effortlessly, it seemed – with a pulsing sense of life. It was more than just the technical precision and stylistic detail of their dancing (which were thorough), but also the razor-sharp comic timing and dramatic fullness with which each dancer made Don Quixote’s Spain spring to life. This collective artistry was joyously palpable, with the ballet showcasing La Scala’s dancers as an attractive ensemble with great capacity to paint a ballet with life, colour, and just plain fun. In an art form where the ensemble is sometimes relegated to being little more than background scenery for the étoiles, La Scala’s dancers testify to the artistic power of a fully-realised corps.

But of course, Don Quixote also makes great use of principal dancers – not least in the famous Act III Grand Pas. The dual role of Kitri/Dulcinea was performed by La Scala’s Nicoletta Manni. Technically she was a delight, skimming through the challenges of Kitri’s multiple variations with an easy grace and uplifting energy. What made her Kitri particularly notable, though, was the likeability she gave the character. It can be easy for Kitri to become a caricature of coquettishness, but Manni’s Kitri was warm rather than overconfident, playful rather than brittle. Her beautiful smile was generous and quick to be given to both the audience and the dancers on stage with her. Combined with her technical ease, this shining warmth made her dancing wonderfully inviting.

Leonid Sarafanov (Basilio), La Scala Ballet's <i>Don Quixote</i> © Darren Thomas
Leonid Sarafanov (Basilio), La Scala Ballet's Don Quixote
© Darren Thomas

Basilio was performed by the Mikhailovsky Ballet’s rather spectacular Leonid Sarafanov, who has previously guest-starred for La Scala in this role. He was in full flight with his signature stratospheric jumps, characterised by swift approaches and feather-light landings. Whilst many male dancers embody power and drive in their leaps, Sarafanov’s emphasise airiness, flight-like suspension, glide rather than a push-off bound, and the delightful impression of transcending gravity by being happily indifferent to it rather than exerting energy. This is a rather more unusual jump quality, and hugely enjoyable to watch: at times, it looked as if he had been caught up on a breeze. His Basilio was endearingly boyish rather than the more traditional extroverted larrikin some might expect, but nonetheless he looked as if he was having the absolute time of his life (and if I could do that many consecutive double tours, I probably would too). I’ve rarely seen such a beaming display of pure and unabated pleasure in dance.

The La Scala ensemble also has a talent for characterisations, as shown by the supporting cast. Giuseppe Conte performed the titular role of the Don. He was a tall and dignified stage presence, and his Don was sympathetic and nobly aloof rather than the bumbling exaggeration the character can descend into. He was aptly supported by Gianluca Schiavoni as the red-faced Sancho Panza and Salvatore Perdichizzi as a ruthlessly pragmatic Lorenzo. Riccardo Massimi’s Gamache was something of a comic scene stealer, all white-gloved sartorial comedy without once seeming pathetic. Caterina Bianchi was also noteworthy for her gracefully assured dancing as Queen of the Dryads, as she was with Alessandra Vassalo as Kitri’s two friends.

Nicoletta Manni (Dulcinea), Maria Celeste Losa (Queen of Dryades), La Scala's <i>Don Quixote</i> © Darren Thomas
Nicoletta Manni (Dulcinea), Maria Celeste Losa (Queen of Dryades), La Scala's Don Quixote
© Darren Thomas

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra was in fine form under David Coleman’s baton, playing John Lanchbery’s adaptation of the original Ludwig Minkus score with a fitting liveliness.

In a production where everything was just so immensely likeable and vivacious, it was hardly surprising that by evening's end the audience was eating out of the palm of La Scala’s hand. The final cheer of the night, though, was actually heard from the dancers behind the curtain as the houselights went up. The party was clearly happening on both sides of the orchestra pit, and with dancing like this, it absolutely should.

****1