"Don Quixote" Marks New Chapter for Joffrey Ballet

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 21, 2011 8:40PM

Like many works of art, ballet obscures the unpleasant inner workings with the dazzling outward beauty of the form. We don't see the dancer's torn muscles or disfigured feet or the general mental and physical hardship the dancers endure for their art. Instead, we see the finished product of powerful jumps and quick fouettes.

Earlier this summer, the Joffrey Ballet -- one of the country's premier dance companies and yearly purveyor of The Nutcracker performances, among others -- threatened to lock out its dancers over stalled labor negotiations. The demands for health care, pay for extra hours and so forth were typical of most labor negotiations. Though an agreement was reached, one dancer indicated that the ordeal hurt the cohesiveness of the company, saying "it is certainly not the family it once was."

Yet, with the season opener of "Don Quixote," it's hard to tell that the company even endured such recent strife. If there were any residual hard feelings, it was impossible to tell. In a way, this particular production seemed like a salve on the wounds left over from the labor dispute: unlike many classical ballets that, while beautiful and dramatic are also intense and a bit intimidating, the Joffrey's take on the Spanish story is full of warmth, humor and lightness.

The Joffrey performance marks the world premiere of Russian choreographer Yuri Possokhov's re-imagining of the story; Possokhov danced in "Don Quixote" during his time as a principal dancer for the Bolshoi Ballet. Though there is plenty of excellent dancing, we noticed immediately how the Joffrey's "Don Quixote" made extensive use of props, elaborate sets and animated images to help tell the wordless story.

Aided by the excellent Chicago Sinfonietta, the cumulative effect of the Joffrey's dancers performing on a gorgeously designed set was almost operatic in scale. The ballet, split into two acts, ran the gamut of humorous, touching, dramatic and at times even suspenseful. Those most familiar with the Cervantes story will find the ballet runs along much different plot lines, though Don Quixote and his squire Sancho are still the central figures, along with the lovers lovers Kitri and Basilio (who, in other versions of this ballet, take a more central role).

The cast rotates for the various performances, and for the show we reviewed, dancers Christine Rochas and Dylan Gutierrez shined as Kitri and Basilio. Acting isn't usually the first order for a ballet dancer, but each dancer was convincing in their roles with dancing and when at (relative) rest. Even more impressive, however, is the depth of the company. From principal to background player, elegant athleticism and palpable passion seem to be the new hallmarks of the Joffrey's dancers.

Perhaps most exciting (apart from the dancing, and the music, and the visuals...) is that with "Don Quixote," The Joffrey has found a way to connect ballet with audiences who might not have originally been interested. The liveliness and accessibility eased the audiences into a cultural event that is sometimes noted for its stuffiness. It helps, too, to have a story full of lovable characters in decidedly un-ballet-like costumes: two dancers played the part of Rocinante, Don Quixote's horse, and Sancho Panza sported a pillow-stuffed midsection for dance-friendly rotundity (not coincidentally, they also seemed to be audience favorites).

We aren't regulars of the ballet yet, but with this production--part of what the company is calling its "New Generation"--we will be before the season is through.

Don Quixote's remaining performances run Friday, Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 22 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 23 at 2 p.m. at the Auditorium Theater, 50 E. Congress Parkway