THE BLOG

Oh, What a Night: Don Quixote Returns to San Francisco Ballet

03/20/2015 01:28 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

San Francisco Ballet is performing its supremely entertaining story ballet Don Quixote again, and I'd hate for you to miss it if you are nearby. I saw it a couple of years ago, as the company ended its season with a whooshing, leaping, swirling, castanet-clicking flourish. That night, the performance had the crowd whooping periodically and on its feet at the end. It doesn't seem like hyperbole to say that the dancers I saw, particularly the leads, Maria Kochetkova and Taras Domitro (performing again this season), could hardly have been better.

This is a ballet to which I would take anyone who is new to the art form. Just start with the story. Set in Spain, obviously, the tale centers on two young lovers, Kitri and Basilio. Kitri's father wants her to marry a hilariously oafish rich gent (danced superbly that night by Myles Thatcher, a member of the corps). Most of the dancing takes place in the sun-filled village square into which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza wander, on a (live) horse and mule, in their quest for adventures in chivalry.

The music and dance is infused with Spanish touches: guitars and tambourines, flirtatious maids with snapping fans, toreadors with whirling capes, head-scarved gypsies in a moonlit camp, intricate steps with flamenco flourishes. Like the dancing, the colorful costumes -- traditional tutus and tights, flounced dresses and brocade-trimmed jackets -- mix Russian tradition and Spanish style. With sets and costumes by the late Martin Pakledinaz, a well-known theater and opera designer, it's a dazzling production.

It's also charming, exhilarating, and, with the foppish suitor and the clumsy, paunchy Panza, funny. As Helgi Tomasson, the company's artistic director and principal choreographer, says, "It's a bit of a farce." (The choreography for this version of Don Quixote, which premiered in 2003, is by Tomasson and then-principal dancer, now resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov.) Unlike this season's other story ballets, Giselle (performed earlier) and Romeo & Juliet (in May), there's nothing dramatic or psychologically deep here. It's pure entertainment.

First and foremost, of course, is the dancing. So many leg-stretching leaps and tight turns, the men often ending in a quick marry-me pose, down and up in the blink of an eye. So many alluring, head-tossing pirouettes. So much splendid partnering. In one amazing move, Kochetkova ran across the stage and literally leaped head first into the arms of Domitro, who flipped her over and boosted her above his head in one smooth, beautiful movement. Another time, he might have been hoisting a furled umbrella as he held her up, straight as a redwood, by one leg.

The dancers with SF Ballet seem to be called upon to do more with every season. I remember seeing a photograph of members of the mid-'50s-era company: six women in toe shoes and fluffy skirts standing in a row near the Golden Gate Bridge, each with one leg outstretched shoulder high. I'm sure they were fine, maybe even great; but I can't help thinking that these women were never asked to dance anything near as demanding as today's dancers are.

March 20-29, Don Quixote, San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 415.865.2000,sfballet.org.