The Cubans dance it with sizzling sun-drenched relish. The Russians blast with Soviet-style flamboyance. And the British? Yes, the British dancers. Are they still too modest and reserved to shake off their erect and elegant postures and let themselves go? After a mixed reaction to The Royal Ballet’s new production of Don Quixote last year, the company has been offered a second chance to show off, with more convincing Spanish fiesta-style display. But have they succeeded?

Christopher Saunders (Don Quixote) and Marianela Núñez (Kitri) © Johan Persson | ROH
Christopher Saunders (Don Quixote) and Marianela Núñez (Kitri)
© Johan Persson | ROH

Carlos Acosta, principal guest dancer at The Royal Ballet, and darling of audiences worldwide, was invited to produce a new version of the ballet originally created by Marius Petipa in 1869. It premiered at the Royal Opera House in October 2013 and while audiences enjoyed it, connoisseurs and critics found much to criticise. Don Quixote, based loosely on Cervantes' novel, remains the popular mainstay of many international companies, and its famous Grand Pas de Deux offers ‘wow’ packed moments in galas around the world. It demands for not only classical purity, but also vibrant character dancing and acting, and the ballet resulted in two unsuccessful productions in the company’s recent history. The first was by Antony Dowell in 1993 – remembered mostly for its square windmill decorated tutus, and then Australian Ross Stretton's – at the time director of the company – in 2001. In both cases the Royal Ballet dancers seemed unable to bring out the vibrancy and energy so needed for this ballet. But if anyone can inspire them to break-free, then it is Carlos, who for nearly 25 years has demonstrated dynamic dancing and compelling personality on stages around the world.

Now, at 41, he is looking to the future, and Don Quixote seems the obvious choice to test his choreographic skills, especially given his own Latin charisma and long association with Don Quixote. The Cuban-born dancer was weaned on this ballet – it’s as familiar to him as black beans and salsa. As a student, then company member, he watched, and later danced in the spirited National Ballet of Cuba production, which still today sets the stage alight with flashy technique and powerful acting from every dancer.

Happily, Acosta has not yet hung up his ballet shoes, and made for a splendid and charismatic Basilio on opening night. Yes, he might not jump as high,nor cover the stage at the same supersonic pace. But his turns are technically perfect and his characterization spot-on. His ever-boyish presence lights up the stage when he is dancing, which ultimately reverberates on the rest of the company. His humorous shrugging of shoulders and glances of long suffering at the capricious moods of Kitri – portrayed by Marianela Núñez – brought chuckles from the audience. Always lyrically lovely, Núñez portrayed her role as a fickle lover most of the time irritated by Basilio’s attentions, then demanding them with her sunny smile. A ballerina to admire in all her roles, she was at her best here in the dream sequence where, in white tutu, she showed off beautiful technique and elegant footwork. And for me, her Kitri impersonation was at its best in Act I, when she spunkily stamps on pointe, fluffing her frilly dress, and then speedily pirouettes down the line of cape tossing matadors, wild, impulsive, young and fiery.

Marianela Núñez (Kitri) © Johan Persson | ROH
Marianela Núñez (Kitri)
© Johan Persson | ROH
The production is great fun and pleasing to watch, with sets and designs by Tim Hatley. White-washed (very small) houses move around, somewhat alarmingly, to form different scenes in Act I. There is a huge orange sinking sun in Act II for the gypsy encampment with Dalek-like, ever-increasing in size, moving windmills, while shocking pink floral decorations adorn the Dream Scene. The final act opens in an atmospheric local tavern where a long table is used for Kitri and Mercedes to dance on.

Martin Yates, who made a new orchestration of the original Minkus score, conducted the orchestra of the Royal Opera House with mixed success – at times the music was sluggish and uninspiring. Certainly, unlike the Russian and Cuban companies, he didn’t give the dancers any extra time to show off spectacular moves, but instead ploughed on according to his tempo – a shame as this is one of the very few ballets where liberties can be taken.

Acosta has said that he wanted the ballet to be realistic rather than balletic, and so made some changes to clarify the story – the vision of Dulcinea in the Prologue; the replacement of the puppet theatre in Act II with a campfire and a quartet of guitar-playing gypsies; and in the final act, a market square wedding rather than an overtly eloquent one. There are many comic moments and there are real reactions, such as chatting and cheering from the townsfolk – dancers are expected to be silent! The company’s dancing as a whole has gone up a notch since last year, and they seemed more at home with the demands of the choreographer. There are backs that still need to bend further, torsos that should puff out more, and there should be excess, rather than shortage of self- assured swaggering, with, let’s face it, more flirtatious sexuality from everyone. But it’s coming.

Good performances came from Yuhui Choe who made an elegant and delicate Queen of the Dryads, and Meaghan Grace Hinkis who was the charming and cheeky will o’ the wisp, Amur. Ryoichi Hirano made a good posing Espada, legs drawn tightly together, arm up stretched over his bending back as he went through his cape-swirling actions, while his consort Mercedes, danced by Claire Calvert, (it's good to see her back on stage after a long absence due to injury) showed off some impressive turns and balances. Like Núñez, she too needs to be more sensual in her role. I found that I was longing for Don Quixote (Christopher Saunders) to assume grander, stronger, befuddling actions (too often he got lost in the crowds) and Bennet Gartside’s Gamache could have been even sillier and more foppish. But on the whole, the company, which has proved itself dramatically in MacMillan ballets, and in its ability to change styles in numerous contemporary works, is coming to terms with the ‘devil-may-care’ reckless abandon needed in this ballet. They have plenty of opportunities to do this, as Don Quixote remains in the repertoire until January 22nd .