Don Quixote is, literally, a dancing feast – at its most outrageous it affirms, transcends, amplifies life. Cynthia Harvey’s production for Singapore Dance Theatre is sleek (much of the character dances are gone), elegant and intelligent. Whilst it doesn’t quite challenge the company to devour space, it has its own whimsical charm, its own sly delight. Cervantes made tenderer but not tamer.

© Bernie Ng
© Bernie Ng

At its essence, Don Quixote is a virtuoso test of comic timing, of wit and yes, of technique. To make a case for the roles' extravagance while resisting the story's parody requires something of that curious mix of ambition and probity, sense and courage. In the first act, probity bordering on caution was the overriding watchword. Rosa Park (Kitri) isn’t, I think, a bravura dancer by temperament – her opening jetés lack flight and rather than letting those stabbing thrusts to the floor (in Kitri’s act 1 variation) punctuate the music, she floats through its rhythmic avidity. Like the corps, she softens the ballet’s character flourishes turning its harder edges into conventional lyricism. The first act also suffered from a general musical evenness. That is the problem with taped music – it can not embrace the spontaneity of a live performance, the instinctual choices dancers make; the thrilling split second shifts in speed, phrasing and timing so essential in a ballet like Don Quixote. In short, the music doesn't quite breathe with the pulse of the dance which is a pity, because the production is wonderful. The sets which manage to convey the illusion of depth are both spacious and intimate. The choreography which develops as a continuous dialogue (action, reaction, action, reaction) is about as dramatically cogent as Don Quixote can get. Yet though the dancing look polished – the women at least (the men seem less at ease) – the dancers appear to revel in the choreography’s surface charm without always finding its throbbing heart. Some did – Maughan Jemesen is vivacious as Kitri's Friend and Etienne Ferrére's Gamache is a particular highlight.

But then we move on to the dream scene and natural hierarchy is restored. In pairing two of the company’s finest classical stylists, Park and Li Jie, the scene generates its own locus of excitement. Here Park, dancing with gracious aplomb, is pure delight. In classical dance, variations extend and expand our understanding of the characters. In ballets with limited possibilities for dramatic development, they become important analogies, extended metaphors that conceptualise characterisation and materialise abstractions. Park, teasing out the variations infinite shades – warmth, femininity, mystery – does that gloriously. There is also much to admire in Li’s dancing – the geometric tapering of her line (lethally sensual as Mercedes, sublimely elegant as the Dryad Queen), the purity of her dance, the quiet integrity of her upper body. But she dances much of the dream scene (and much of Mercedes also) in the same cooly contained metronome, legs unfolding with generous ease but never quite attempting to tell us through the modulation of step or music who she is or what they, her characters, want to say. Li, newly promoted to principal and a jewel of a dancer, has all the requisite classical attributes; and we look forward to seeing her in ballerina roles. I would also like to see intent, purpose, a hint of risk in her performance. Still, framed by a retinue of soft-armed dryads and supported by Akira Nakahama’s lovely cupid, the dream scene lived up to its name. Preceding it was Zhao Jun’s excellent Gypsy King.

© Bernie Ng
© Bernie Ng
Did the dream continue into the mortal world? Mostly. Park continued on fine form with filigree footwork and sparkling charm. Performing this intricate pas – easily pulverised, impossibly daedalian – with luminously impeccable dancing is rare – rare on this stage, rare on any stage. In Basilio’s Act 3 variation Chen Peng falls short of her technical standards, but he partners her well, and remains engaged for the most part. Interspersed were solo turns courtesy of Kitri’s friends – Maughan Jemesen and Elaine Heng. Both danced well and behind them, the female corps were quite fine too.

The pleasure of Don Quixote lies in the contrast between the formal demands, without which the ballet is vulgar and the sheer pomp of dance, without which it isn’t quite Don Quixote. If in the beginning the company seemed uncomfortably suspended between the two, by the end they had found a golden mean.

****1