Ratmansky’s Don Quixote makes its U.S. debut
As Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote debuted last night in Seattle, where it runs through Feb. 12, one young Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer reflects on learning from a master.
Don Quixote, one of the most famous classical ballets ever produced. Alexei Ratmansky, one of the most relevant and sought after choreographers of this generation. You can see where this is going.
Combining the best of well-loved tradition and recent innovation can lead to a beautiful and exciting breakthrough in the world of ballet. The company I dance with, Pacific Northwest Ballet, has the honor of being the first to premiere Mr. Ratmansky’s Don Quixote in the United States. Of course, it’s exciting to perform any production of Don Quixote. I grew up watching videos of the greats performing this ballet, from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Angel Corella. I got to dance Basilio’s variation from the third act at the Youth America Grand Prix as a young student. To this day, Don Quixote is one of my favorite ballets. But to get to work with Mr. Ratmansky on his version is icing on the cake.
We got just a short time with Mr. Ratmansky due to his extremely demanding schedule; about three weeks last July and two weeks in December to prepared for his highly-anticipated Seattle arrival. When we first started rehearsal, ballet masters from the Dutch National Ballet, where his Don Quixote first premiered in 2010, came to set the choreography on us. Much of our instruction was in making sure technical aspects of the dances were clean and that we, in the corps de ballet, had a clear outline of what was happening in each scene. That way when Mr. Ratmansky came, he could mold everything easily to how he envisioned it.
PNB's Kaori Nakamura in Ratmansky's Don Quixote. Photo by Angela Sterling.
Our focus was to react and respond believably with each character, no matter how big or small of a role. Every individual mattered to him, including all of us in the corps, who didn’t have specifically choreographed characters. Playing one of the seguidilla dancers (a fancy title for a person who lives in the town), I stay active and involved in the scene, helping the main characters feel like they’re in a town square in Barcelona where the ballet takes place. This requires about an hour onstage of acting without dancing. Mr. Ratmansky helped our acting by relating the story to us in a current way. For example, when Kitri and Basilio, the two main characters of the ballet, come out into the village, he told us we should respond as if they were the “it” couple of the town, that they are the life of the party, and their mood of the day can affect the mood of the whole scene. Our attention should focus on watching them flirt and play hard to get, and then turn to each other to discuss, or gossip, as if we’re saying, “They do this all the time!” or, “Hopefully they aren’t fighting today!”
With each scene, I noticed that Mr. Ratmansky concentrated on the big picture as well as the small details, for which he has a very picky eye. At any given time, he could focus on everybody onstage, not just the dancers in the spotlight. In one part of the first act, my character tries to flirt with Mercedes, the most beautiful street dancer in Barcelona, by serenading her with a guitar. During one rehearsal, as I was strumming the instrument attempting to entice her, Mr. Ratmansky stopped the music. He walked over to me and said I had to treat the guitar as if it were a valuable possession. If I were a guitar player, he explained I would be looking down at it occasionally while playing, trying to listen to the quality of the notes. He wanted my left hand to move and change finger positions on the neck of the guitar, so it actually looked like I was playing it. This showed me that a character comes to life through a dancer’s mannerisms and how they carry themself. These small details make it easy for the audience to believe the characters are real.
From the big idea to the tiniest of refinements, Mr. Ratmansky has a very special eye and mind for dance. Working with him in the studios was an amazing honor, and the things I learned will stay with me.
This wasn’t the first time Mr. Ratmansky’s worked with PNB. Last season, he set his Concerto DSCH on our company. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a second cast. Watching him work with everyone and seeing his choreography onstage gave me insight into his artistic mind. I was inspired by how he created feelings and emotions without the need of a plot or fancy sets and costumes. I was inspired how he emphasized the importance of showing real and honest reactions onstage and that one must have a reason to perform a gesture or movement. These themes carry through with all of his works, including Don Quixote, fancy sets and all.
Steven Loch is an apprentice with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. PNB’s Don Quixote runs through Feb. 12 at McCaw Hall. www.pnb.org.