“Man, she whips me into shape.”
— Sarah McGinnis, speaking of dance coach Vlada Kysselova
Flying through the air, Sarah McGinnis swings one muscular leg skyward as her coquettish flamenco skirt flares into a red-and-black blur of tulle. The ballerina lands lightly en pointe, then readies herself to perform the move all over again.
Her seeming ease in mastering what would appear to be a nearly impossible feat bodes well for Asheville Ballet’s upcoming production of Don Quixote, which is based loosely on the classic 17th-century novel by Miguel Cervantes.
“If it looks hard, you’ve failed,” observed Ann Dunn, the dance company’s director, at an earlier rehearsal.
Despite appearances, McGinnis — in her lead role of Kitri, one of the story’s young lovers — can attest to how gruelingly difficult this ballet actually is to perform.
But she also recognizes that she has only herself to blame for the rigors now facing her.
Continuing an Asheville Ballet tradition, the 18-year-old graduating senior at T.C. Roberson High School was allowed to choose which ballet the group would perform this spring, her last with them before she goes on to college, or to a professional dance company.
Before rehearsals began, McGinnis says she dreamed of the glamour of at last becoming a senior and finally getting to do things her way in Don Quixote. The reality, however, has proven somewhat different.
“It is way uglier,” reveals McGinnis. “Reality is slapping me in the face.”
Under the firm direction of guest coach Vlada Kysselova, the confident teenager is being stretched to her limits in a production that leaves her absolutely no time to catch her breath or even sip a drink of water between dance sequences and costume changes.
“Man, she whips me into shape,” McGinnis declares of Kysselova.
The tension between illusion and reality animates both the ballet and the original novel — as well as the local dance company’s efforts to bring the classical ballet to life.
Two weeks before the show was scheduled to open, a behind-the-scenes flurry of activity was consuming Dunn and her cast and crew. And no wonder: The Asheville Ballet production of Don Quixote promises to be lavish, incorporating a cast of some-30 professional, “pre-professional” and child ballet dancers, along with two veterans of the local theater scene.
The delusional Don Quixote is played by Ralph Redpath (who, in rehearsals, evokes a sort of stoic dignity), while his down-to-earth squire, Sancho Panza, is interpreted in a fittingly comic manner by David Hopes. And although you won’t find these actors doing any arabesques, Redpath does dance a minuet with his character’s ideal love, Dulcinea (Amy Kohler), while Hopes takes a spin with a village girl.
In fact, Brazilian flamenco dancer Eliane Casagrandi has given the local company eight weeks of instruction in that flamboyant style’s postures and gestures, which are incorporated into the classic ballet.
Eighteen handmade costumes from Ukraine — complete with glistening crystals, rhinestones and intricate swirls of brocade — add to the glitz.
But a few last-minute challenges still remained to be sorted out last week. Dunn was working out the kinks in depicting the all-important windmill (which Don Quixote mistakes for a monster) without it consuming too much space on stage, as well as tracking down other odds and ends.
“Try finding armor you can dance in!” she exclaims.
Grasping the ungraspable
In truth, the ballet bears only passing resemblance to Cervantes’ book. The character of Don Quixote, of course, still looms large, but much of the ballet’s action revolves around star-crossed lovers Kitri and Basilio.
In some ways, that might not be such a bad thing.
“Ungraspable” is how Czech novelist Milan Kundera (author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being) describes Cervantes’ classic in his introduction to the 1999 Oxford University Press edition of Don Quixote.
The novel follows the escapades of a 50-year-old man of La Mancha (remember the musical!), who steeps himself in books of knightly chivalry, the pulp fiction of his day. Driven mad (essentially by bad writing), he renames himself Don Quixote and sets off to find knightly renown with his trusty Sancho Panza.
“The fundamental fact of the protagonist’s whole existence is his will to be what he is not,” writes Kundera. “Nothing in it is sure; everything in it is mystification or illusion; everything in it has an uncertain, shifting significance.
“And nothing in it is to be taken seriously,” Kundera adds.
To make his point, the Czech author notes that Cervantes himself insisted he couldn’t really vouch for the substance of Don Quixote’s story, since he could only write an approximate translation of the tale written in Arabic by a Moor — and Moors, claimed Cervantes, are all “imposters, liars, and visionaries.” (It’s easy to imagine Cervantes giving a wink and a nod with that outrageous line.)
More than two centuries later, the ballet was born in imperial Russia (choreographed by Marius Petipa for the Bolshoi Ballet in December 1869) — albeit with some major revisions to the story.
“The Russians just wanted something Spanish in their repertoire — and to be snazzy and European — and Don Quixote is what they know, because they had studied the classics,” notes Dunn.
For the Asheville production, Dunn adapted the original Russian choreography — and added new dance parts in many sections, with input from Kysselova and company members Amy Kohler (who gracefully inhabits the role of Dulcinea) and Lyle Laney (the baseball player turned dancer who portrays the bullfighter, Espada).