Monthly Archives: March 2015

10 Don Quixote ballet trivia bits

This article is about the ballet, Don Quixote, in general. Curious to read my review of the San Francisco Ballet’s January 25, 2019 performance at the War Memorial Opera House? Click HERE.

Mathilde Froustey in SFB’s Don Quixote, photo Erik Tomasson

Do you know your Don Quixote ballet trivia? So maybe you’ve seen the entire ballet, or plan to. Here are ten bits to entertain and educate:

  1. The staging you were/will be watching, whether it is American Ballet Theatre, Royal Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Mariinsky, Bolshoi or other, has stemmed from the same source: Alexander Gorsky’s 1911 restaging of the even more original source, Marius Petipa’s 1869 four-act, eight-scene ballet for Moscow. Which blossomed two years later into an even bigger restaging for the St. Petersburg stage and the Imperial Ballet: five acts and eleven scenes. Which surely made for a long night of dancing and set changes. Which is probably why Gorsky restaged it in 1911 (for the Moscow stage and, two years later, for the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet stage).
  2. The ballet, in some form, has been around for over 250 years. First in 1740, in a muted, era-appropriate style, by Franz Hilverding, in Vienna. In 1768, Jean Georges Noverre offered his version; 1808, Charles Didelot did the same. On and on, through the 19th century: one for the London court, one for Berlin, one for Turin. The best known Petipa/Gorsky staging sort of of knocked the others out of importance, which is unfair, but so is life.
  3. The ballet isn’t supposed to reflect the entire Cervantes tome, but instead is based on one extended episode from the novel. Yes, in the ballet, there is still a windmill and Don Quixote does fight with it, but only a brief exchange, swiping at it ineffectually with his jousting pole before he falls to the ground and drifts off to dreamland (followed by an utterly delicious dream ballet scene). Some stagings try to coax more out of his character and his presence in the libretto, but most just focus on dance, dance, dance, and Kitri and Basilio’s romance. Which, hey, works.

    San Francisco Ballet, Don Quixote, photography Erik Tomasson

    San Francisco Ballet, Don Quixote, photography Erik Tomasson

  4. More frequently performed than the full-length ballet is the famous Grand Pas de Deux from the final scene. It’s one of those bravura numbers soloists love to tour, with good reason. It’s lovely, technically demanding, memorable. Kitri’s solo variation is also commonly performed on the competition circuit. You might remember this pas de deux from the 1977 film, The Turning Point, where Leslie Brown and Mikhail Baryshnikov tear up the stage as Kitri and Basilio. I loved it so much.Here’s that pas de deux featuring American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Paloma Hererra and Angel Corella. They are stupendous. 
  5. Cuban-trained dancers know this ballet very, very well. For the men, Basilio is a role they have performed and enjoyed through many years of training. I have to say, they seem to have an astonishing knack for the part. When I saw San Francisco Ballet principal Carlos Quenedit tearing up the stage on the company’s recent opening night of Don Quixote, I was stunned by how well he did. He very much had the “wow” factor going that night, in this, his first season as a company principal. Mathilde Froustey, too, as Kitri, was knockout wonderful. (You can read my Bachtrack review HERE .
  6. The Ludwig Minkus score is not as thrilling as La Bayadére, which he also composed, but it certainly does the job of propelling the dancers and production ever onward at a brisk clip. This is not a short ballet. Nor is it the breathtakingly soulful Kingdom of the Shades. It moves, moves, moves.
  7. For the female dancers, the fan flourish movements are a dance in themselves, a difficult one to master. And hanging on tight to those fans through all the dancing is tougher than you’d imagine.
  8. Famous stagings of this ballet, since the Petipa/Gorsky staging, include Ninette de Valois for Royal Ballet (1950); Rudolph Nureyev for Vienna State Opera Ballet (1966); Mikhail Baryshnikov for American Ballet Theatre (1980). Recent restagings include The Royal Ballet’s version by Carlos Acosta (2013) and San Francisco Ballet’s, by Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov. (2003, with gorgeous new costumes and set in 2012).
  9. Balanchine created his own Don Quixote during his Suzanne Farrell obsession years. And, you guessed it, he was Don Q and Farrell his idealized love, Dulcinea (whom Don Quixote mistakes Kitri for, in most of the versions). But he used none of the original staging, nor the libretto, ignoring the Minkus score as well. Seems to me the production was a little um, self-serving. Perhaps the public felt the same, as the ballet was pulled from NYCB repertoire ten years later.
  10. The best bit of trivia: Spanish authorities revealed that they have found what appears to be the remains of Don Quixote’s creator, Miguel Cervantes, 400 years after his death. ( (How quixotic that search must have been. And thank you, Cervantes, for giving us that lovely adjective!)




Violinist versus Bass Guitar Man


Advisory: this blog entry carries with it a *NSPCMOBG rating and may not be suitable for young guitarists.

Back in 2006 when I was a new violin student, I wrote this for my blog at ( Dang. It STILL makes me laugh. Indulge me, dear reader. And laugh with me. Or maybe–gulp!–get offended. Um, please refer to above advisory.

Violinist versus Bass Guitar Man

I went to my violin lesson last week, passing through the local music store where a few customers were experimenting with guitars, to arrive in back where two lesson rooms are located. My teacher’s room was still dark and silent. When I didn’t hear the twang of a bass guitar in the adjacent room, my hopes soared. Maybe he’d gone away. Then I saw him, hunched down over his guitar in the second room, plucking at the strings. My heart sank. Bass Guitar Man had clearly not gone away.

Bass Guitar Man — brooding, tallish, thinnish, bad hair. Guitar player. You know the type. (Or maybe you ARE the type, in which case, whoops, sorry, I just bashed you. Did you not read the NSPCMOBG advisory?) My teacher and I had met him a month earlier. He’d taken the music stand from our room. My teacher had come, noticed it was missing, and gone into the other room—now empty—to take it back. Five minutes later, the guy showed up at our door, a dark frown creasing his face. “Where did my stand go?” he asked in a petulant voice.

“Well, actually, this stand belongs in this room.” My teacher kept her voice bright.

He stood there without replying. His lip curled up in a sneer. His eyes narrowed. Then he swung around and strode back to his room. My teacher and I exchanged bemused glances. “Excuse me for just a second,” she told me. I nodded and she stepped over to the adjacent room. “Um, hi,” I heard her say. “I’ve been teaching here for ten years and gosh, you know, I don’t think I’ve met you before.”

And thus it began. It’s funny how you know about someone in an instant that you two will never be friends. Each week when I come for my lesson, he’s there in the room next to us, sometimes with a student, sometimes just twanging on his own. I always feel a thud of disappointment, followed by annoyance at the unlikable music that emanates from his room. Disdain makes my shoulders pinch with disapproval.

Bass Guitar Man returns my sentiments. I can feel his irritation seeping through the walls. I know my violin sounds irritate him. So I try and play louder.

But he’s got ammunition. An amplifier.

Then again, I’ve got an E string.


This past week when I arrived, he was sitting there, hunched over his guitar, twanging out dull-sounding notes thoughtfully, head cocked to the side as if receiving a transmission of divine assistance. (God, it would appear, is a guitar player. After all, we know who plays the violin in the afterworld…) When I began warming up in preparation for my teacher’s arrival, the door to the other room shut with a bang, as I knew it would. “Violinists,” the slam seemed to say. “Guitar players,” my bow, commencing an A major scale, replied.

This lesson, however, it was not the amplifier but the accompanying music that held me prisoner. Stevie Wonder wailed out “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” punctuated by lethargic plunks from the bass guitar. The song climbed into my head, dampening my spirit, my concentration. It blasted out, offending not only my auditory sensibilities, but issuing forth a bad ‘70’s flashback, normally best combated with noise-canceling earphones and/or copious amounts of alcohol, neither of which were available to me in the room that afternoon. I used Zen techniques and Eastern philosophy throughout the lesson to work through the distraction. But it’s like trying to meditate while two people are having a spirited conversation just outside your room. You tell yourself, “I can accept and thus transcend this irritant. The situation is what it is. I welcome this opportunity to keep myself present and focused on my breath. This is…” until the mantras dissolves into, “WILL SOMEONE TELL THOSE GUYS TO GO CARRY ON THEIR CONVERSATION ELSEWHERE BEFORE I FREAK OUT HERE?”

Mercifully, my teacher finally frowned at the music next door. “What is this Stevie Wonder business?” she asked.

“It’s HIM,” I said, injecting as much venom as I could as I indicated the adjacent room with a toss of my head. Bass Guitar Man.

“That’s loud.”

“It IS.”

Fortunately, his student arrived a few minutes later. Stevie was replaced by mumbled conversation and then intermittent student twangings that apparently qualified as music in their book. And shortly thereafter, my lesson came to a close. Relief, at last. Or is it? The reality is, next week, Bass Guitar Man will be there. The reality is, I’m paying a lot of money for these lessons. It saddens me to think this is the way it has to be: gritting my teeth, clinging to my concentration as I play my pieces, not out of the joy of performing what I practiced, but instead using the notes as a defense weapon of sorts, the proverbial finger plugged into the leaking dike to stop my wall of concentration from crumbling.

Perhaps this is the nature of music lessons in a culture that values guitar playing over violin playing. I’m sure my local music shop makes a lot more money from guitar related inventory than any other instrument combined. But I wonder—is it eternally destined to be a cat and dog relationship? Can violinists and bass guitarists live together in harmony? (I think Stevie himself has offered a few comment on this issue.)


In the end, I head back to the Eastern philosophy for answers. It is what it is. Concentrate. Focus on the present. And try to make music out of all that is around you.


*NSPCMOBG = Not So Politically Correct and May Offend Bass Guitarists

**Yet another warning for those of you who like to read warnings: Neither the author nor the administrators of this site can be held responsible for renditions of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” or “Ebony and Ivory” that might continue to play on in head long after departure from this site. For assistance in this matter, please contact your local “Singalong Disney Songs With Elmo” website, where you will be given a new song to fill your head for the rest of the day.


Hummingbirds and bargain seats at the San Francisco Ballet


Buying a $25 ticket for the ballet can be a bit of a gamble. The cheapest seats tend to be the ones furthest back, in the nosebleed section, but you’ll also find them way up close, or way off to the side. (Or, one time, this miracle bargain: Last Saturday night, my $25 seat was row G, the last seat in the row. Up close, but a restricted view. I couldn’t see any dancer entrances from stage left, and a slim wedge of the action in the upstage left corner was invisible to me all evening. Was it worth it, for the chance to see Liam Scarlett’s 2014 Hummingbird again? Hell, yeah!

You see interesting people in the bargain section of the theater. People you might call “characters” — adults that still carry a bit of the idealistic [and dazed] college student in them. Their hair might be shaggy but their eyes burn with intensity. It might not have even crossed their minds to dress up for the performance. It’s not what matters for them. They care deeply about ballet and the performance and the dance company, referring to the dancers by first name and with familiarity, as if they know them deeply, personally (which, likely, in their mind, they do). They are very, very dedicated fans. They are the ones shouting out “bravo!” the instant the ballet finishes, and the first to leap from their seats to offer the dancers a standing ovation. They clap with twice the intensity. It’s very cool being around them, actually. Their energy and enthusiasm are contagious.

Saturday evening’s program (No. 4) started with Dances at a Gathering, Jerome Robbins’s appealing creation from 1969. Allan Ulrich, dance critic for the San Francisco Chronicle loved it, and reviewed it well:

I agreed with the first part of his review: great dancing, lovely Chopin piano music, no missteps among the ten supremely talented company members, which included soloists Dores André, Carlo di Lanno, and corps de ballet member Steven Morse (nice job!). If I had any complaint with the beautiful dancing, it was that, clocking in at over an hour, such pretty perfection grew, I dunno. Un-challenging. It wasn’t soul stirring fodder. And I really, really like to get my soul stirred while at the ballet.

San Francisco Ballet © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet © Erik Tomasson

Enter Liam Scarlett’s Hummingbird. Specifically the second movement. Omigod. Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham, reprising their roles from last year, once again offered one of the most riveting, soul-stirring pas de deux I’ve seen since… well, when they performed it last year. It was so satisfying and cathartic to watch. Some movements you just don’t want to end, and this was one of them.

What was so significant in my mind about last year’s performance, was the fact that Ingham was a soloist, being paired frequently with Tan through the season, in the face of Damian Smith’s imminent departure from the company. Smith and Tan had always danced so gorgeously together, partnered up so well, you knew Smith would be a tough partner to replace. (I still miss the hell out of him this season, and I know I’m not alone in that regard.) It wasn’t until I saw Ingham and Tan in Hummingbird that the “wow!” factor kicked in, in a big way. The electricity of their performance, the onstage chemistry, left me breathless, utterly mesmerized. I walked out of the War Memorial Opera House last year in a daze, understanding that Ingham had just earned something very big that night. And indeed, within the next few weeks (days?), he was promoted to principal.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. © Erik Tomasson

Here’s an excerpt from my Backtrack review from last year, which ended up sounding pretty much identical to the review I scratched out after this year’s performance, so hey, let’s recycle.

“Hummingbird is set to Philip Glass’ Tyrol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and features a striking backdrop – a grand, sky-high canvas, designed by John Macfarlane. The floor slopes up to meet canvas and from that juncture, out creep the dancers, in costumes of various grey hues.  Effective and intriguing were the use of silhouette and shadow periodically showcasing the three principal couples, two soloist couples, and corps ensemble. Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin performed well in a physically demanding, quick-moving pas de deux laced with contention as well as intimacy. Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham were standouts in a gorgeous, electric pas de deux. It was Tan’s second memorable pas de deux for the night, and it almost seemed planned that way, the first with the longtime, soon-to-be-former partner, Smith, the second with the challenger, and indeed, the pas de deux seemed to encompass both antagonism and longing, an upheaval of the old, a fight to establish the new. Ingham’s stage presence has never seemed more powerful, particularly as he longingly pressed up against Tan, after having flung her and spun her about. The accompanying adagio movement of the Tyrol Concerto is gorgeous and hypnotic.”

Speaking of reviews, here’s one I wrote for Program 3, which I’d seen earlier in the week. This program included Forsythe’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” Hans van Manen’s “Variations for two couples” and Myles Thatcher’s world premier of Manifesto. Standout performers throughout the night included Sarah Van Patten, Carlos Quenedit, Frances Chung, Davit Karapetyan, Carlo di Lanno, Sofiane Sylve, Jennifer Stahl, Taras Domitro, corps de ballet dancers Norika Matsuyama, Steven Morse and Sean Orza.

I’ll end with a suggestion for ballet bargain hunters: check your favorite dance company’s online reservation site from time to time. Or call them. That’s how I got my $14 ticket. (Did you click on the link above? Why not? It’s a funny story. Here’s another chance: Don’t be afraid to try the off-to-the-side and way-front seats. Yes, it’s a different experience, and, if money were no object, I’d always pick center, 10-15 rows from the front. But not when they want $175 for the seat. Oh, the saving grace, in the end, of those $25 ticket options. What a great San Francisco night of entertainment — and one that didn’t break the bank.