On Thursday night the Sofia National Ballet’s production of Don Quixote whisked its Glasgow audience away to a fantastic world of chivalry, young love, dreamlike dryads and eccentric knights-errant throwing lances at windmills. The period sets, matador capes and tambourines were exotic enough on their own, but combined with the sweltering heat of the King’s Theatre (heat waves are so rare in Scotland that we’re never prepared when they happen), the audience was given the full Mediterranean experience. The dancers even used real castanets on stage and, under the blazing stage lights, I’m sure their Spanish fans were welcome additions to their vibrant costumes.

Sofia National Ballet: Don Quixote
Sofia National Ballet: Don Quixote

The current tour, marking the 85th anniversary of the company, is the first time the Sofia National Ballet has performed in the UK, and it will continue throughout July with three classical ballet performances (Swan Lake, Giselle and Don Quixote) at each venue it visits: Liverpool, Reading, Aylesbury, and Glasgow to date; it is moving on to Edinburgh, Bristol, Manchester, Woking and Milton Keynes. Since it was founded in 1928, the Sofia National Ballet has sought to create a fusion of intricate Russian classical ballet and German expressionist dance. This synthesis of different styles has led to a distinct balletic blend which has awarded the company acclaim for its contribution to Bulgarian culture.

In Don Quixote, this approach is most apparent when comparing the portrayals of the two young lovers, Kitri and Basil, with that of Don Quixote himself. Marta Petkova, in the role of Kitri, and Nikola Hadjitanev as Basil dominated the stage when they danced together, and their technical skill was showcased in the final wedding scene. The duo performed complicated lifts, spins and spectacular leaps which prompted gasps from Thursday’s audience. In contrast, Don Quixote (Kiril Ivanov) moved with jerky, deliberate strides and his unchanging facial expressions and make-up were reminiscent of an old-theatre mask.

The two comic relief characters – Don Quixote’s chubby servant Sancho (played by Georgi Asparuhov) and the flashy suitor, Gamache (Elenko Ivanov) – were very amusing, the latter in particular. Ivanov portrayed the perfect dandy, bobbing his head from side to side as he minced around the stage, dusting off his garish costume (green, with a huge orange feather in his hat), completely oblivious to the main couple’s obvious affections for each other. Not until the faked suicide scene does Gamache twig that Basil’s death is less fatal than the lovers would have Kitri’s father believe. However, by that time, the townsfolk have had enough of Gamache’s ridiculous pomp and he is carried offstage, kicking wildly to a chorus of audience laughter.

If you’re going to Don Quixote expecting a ballet about the knight-errant, then you’re in for a surprise. The titular character appears as a side-character, a plot device. He dances once, with Kitri, and even then three other couples are involved in the sequence. His companion, Sancho, has slightly more to do, but all of his dancing is played for laughs as a plump, ageing, hard-done-by servant.

It wasn’t always like this. The ballet’s original libretto actually contained several plot strands in common with Cervantes’ novel. Over time, these were removed, and we’re left with a fairly standard balletic structure: two lovers, whose relationship is discouraged by the girl’s father because he has ambitions that she will marry a rich suitor, eventually end up together with a final showcase of the dancers’ talents.

But the plot really doesn’t matter when a good company such as the Sofia National Ballet performs the ballet. With technically brilliant dancers and engaging and likeable actors in the roles of Don Quixote, Sancho and the suitor Gamache, the audience will really enjoy the evening – and last night, in Glasgow, we did.