The Power of Don Q

Classic Arts Features   The Power of Don Q
D. L. Groover shows us how to snap a fan and get out of the way of a horse in Houston Ballet's Don Quixote, starting June 8.

An audience favorite, Ben Stevenson's sparkling Don Quixote makes a welcome return this June as the spirited finale to Houston Ballet's impressive 2005-06 season. This spectacular full-length fills the Wortham's mighty stage with the Technicolor of sunny Spain, sweeping action, beloved literary characters, and bravura dancing.

Putting on Don Q, as the ballet's familiarly called, like mounting any of the classic eye-poppers (Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, La Bayadere), takes weeks of pre-planning and rehearsal to make the gargantuan show move as gracefully as lead ballerina Kitri standing in arabesque, snapping open a fan.

The entire artistic staff literally works overtime to schedule, plan, juggle, coach, and teach the ballet, all while scheduling, planning, juggling, coaching, and teaching the remaining works of the season.

"It's a humungous staff effort," says newly-hired ballet mistress Dawn Scannell, who was particularly chosen by Stevenson and artistic director Stanton Welch to stage Don Q's revival. No stranger to Houston audiences, especially in her joyous interpretation of Kitri, Ms. Scannell is one of HB's most distinguished alumni, a principal dancer under Stevenson's guidance during the '80s and '90s.

Scannell does not work in a vacuum. No one at HB does. She carries a three-inch thick spiral-ringed tome that is Don Q's production bible, replete with her own hand-written notes of every character's move, set and costume designs, and minutiae that document each aspect of the work. The book engulfs her.

"The ballet's here," she taps the book in reverence.

With a work this complicated, various segments have been parceled out to particular artistic staff members. This makes the most judicious use of precious studio time and dancers' schedules, as well as playing to the staff's strengths. It's up to artistic coordinator Martine Harley, a 22-year veteran with HB, to weave the many threads of class and rehearsal into an efficient schedule that often resembles an inscrutable Chinese puzzle.

The show-stopping set piece for the lead couple of Kitri and Basilio, the flashy and famous "Don Q Pas de Deux," is overseen by HB principal teacher and coach Lazaro Carreño. Previously celebrated for his bravura dancing at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and now internationally renowned as one of the most respected ballet teachers in the world, Carreño's masculine grace and theatrical pizzazz are the perfect complements to this spectacular duet.

Thanks to the romantic era, every classical ballet has a "white act" that highlights the precision and effortless-looking style of the corps, usually in the guise of ethereal beings like sylphs, snowflakes, swans, or as in Don Q, forest sprites. Ballet mistress Louise Lester is responsible for the hypnotic "Dryad Scene." A principal dancer with the Bavarian State Ballet and later that company's ballet mistress before joining HB in 2004, Lester, with her European sophistication and natural elegance, knows how to elicit the steely softness that "the girls" require for their demanding, wispy paces.

Ballet masters Phillip Broomhead and Steven Woodgate perform double duty on Don Q. Not only are they portraying the juicy roles of the befuddled old Don and his faithful squire Sancho Panza during the run‹which suits the dramatic chops of these two musically gifted artists‹but, like a movie's assistant directors, they're in charge of the tumultuous background action that swirls through Stevenson's rich scenario, especially the busy crowd scenes of the Market and Harbor sequences.

Scannell oversees all of them.

"There are so many different scenes with different dances," Scannell explains, "it all has to be pieced together. There's so much to it, you can't just start from the beginning. Even Sleeping Beauty's not as big, or has as many…flower sellers, fish mongers, peasants on the bridge, people on this balcony over here, people on that staircase over there."

"There's more mise en scene in Don Q than Beauty," says Lester definitively.

Woodgate leans in. "Rather than winding down toward the end of the season, we couldn't be working harder."

"The staff is wired," says Scannell with a smile.

All of them laugh at what seems so daunting to anyone not accustomed to the frantic/normal backstage ballet world.

"And loving every minute of it," she continues. "It's definitely a whole, entire artistic staff effort‹everybody. I'm learning from all of them."

Stevenson's ballet is a traditional version, its antecedents dating back to Marius Petipa's original for Russia's Imperial Ballet in 1869. Like every great dance work from the days before the hieroglyphic Benesh notation system or videotape, what remains is a hodgepodge of oral traditions, revisions, musical additions and reshuffling.

"It's an exciting ballet to do at the end of the year," says Scannell. "All the dancers want to be in it."

"It's a fun ballet to do," says Woodhead about Stevenson's production. "His 'Dryad Scene' is particularly good and has much more flow than Rudolf Nureyev's, the production I danced in Australia. The feeling of the characters is the same, and the mime is almost the same; it's the flourishes and the steps that are different, very Ben. But it has the same Spanish flavor: flirty, coy, and very danceable."

A week before dress rehearsal, Stevenson arrives from Texas Ballet Theater to put the finishing touches to what Scannell and her crew of dance pros have wrought.

"Oh, what has that Dawn girl done now?" Scannell laughs in mock horror before rushing off to rehearsal with the others.

Their weeks of effort won't be obvious from out in front of the house, where the ballet will flow seamlessly by. Don Quixote will dream, the windmill will turn, the senoritas will snap their fans, and Basilio and Kitri will fall in love. It'll be perfect.

D.L. Groover writes on the arts for the Houston Press and OutSmart Magazine. His book Skeletons from the Opera Closet, co-written with C.C. Conner, Jr., is in its fourth printing.

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