Coaching Kitri

June 20, 2007

She’s spicy. She’s Spanish. She’s flirtatious and playful, with just a splash of sexy. And when she’s hot, she can flutter a fan with the best of them. No, this is not the dish on Penélope Cruz. It’s all about Kitri, the muse of the impossible dreamer (and title character) of the ballet Don Quixote.

Decorative fans are as Spanish as paella, castanets, and flamenco. For ages, they were used to beat the heat and as a means of communicating furtive love messages. At one time, there was even a “language of the fan” that every Spaniard understood. So who would Kitri be without her glamorous accessory, the extension of her very arm?

The solo fan variation takes place during Kitri’s wedding, the culmination of the ballet. She’s gotten her man and she’s presenting her lighthearted and self-assured persona. She’s wonderfully classical to boot. But how does the dancer manipulate a fan while turning, jumping, and hopping on point? How does she smoothly integrate the use of this small but unwieldy prop into the core of her character?

Kirk Peterson, American Ballet Theatre ballet master and Don Q coach, says, “I like to put the architecture (the steps) down first, and then we talk about how to use the fan—where to use épaulement, the flirtatious nature of the variation, and using the fan as an expression of the character.” Peterson encourages the dancer to get comfortable by simply holding the fan while practicing the steps first, then tackle the technique for seamlessly opening and closing the fan. Conversely, many dancers spend a week or so working with the fan and music only—no steps allowed.

The extraordinary Gelsey Kirkland dazzled as Kitri in the 1970s and ’80s. Her approach, she says, was to first find the weight of the movement, the spiraling épaulement, and the strong accent that the character needed. “When you feel the gestures clearly without the fan,” she says, “you start to understand the impetus needed to use the fan properly.” Kirkland worked on fan use with Spanish dancer Maria Alba, later integrating it into the mime scenes with coach Pilar Garcia. “Mastering different uses of the fan is technically tricky at first, but not as tricky as breaking down the scene, which dictates the dialogue and etiquette of the fan. You need to know when and how to use it, and why you are using it,” says Kirkland.

She says the tricks of the fan-wielding trade include releasing the wrist invisibly before opening the fan. “Stiff and held joints on transitions are a nightmare,” she says. “You have to know when to use resistance, which reads as a hold, and to release the wrist slightly before working the hand.”

Zoica Tovar, a Cuban-trained dancer with the Orlando Ballet, feels the purpose of the fan is to make Kitri more charming. “In Spain, women tell men things with their fans. You use the fan to be provocative. It’s a way to look coquettish, and to seduce Basilio, Kitri’s love-interest.” She says the fan must be opened fluidly, closed softly, and not held in a vise grip. The line of the arms and the fan should be as one.

New York ballet coach and choreographer Elena Kunikova, who teaches at Steps on Broadway, guards against unqualified fan use among Kitris. She teaches dancers details like how to place their hands on their hips properly. “You have to know how the arm goes from point A to point B exactly,” she says. “There is technique involved, but each ballerina chooses her own tinctures, depending on what she wants to express.”

Festival Ballet Providence principal dancer Leticia Guerrero took character class (with fans) in her native Venezuela. She says that certain wrist moves ensure that the decorative side of the fan faces the audience. “But it took the most practice to learn how to open and close it, and to time it with the movement,” she says. “It’s a matter of doing it over and over again.” Guerrero learned the variation in a week of daily two-hour rehearsals. “The hardest technical part comes at the very end,” she says, “when you have to hop from one foot to the other, do pas de cheval, keep the fan going, do the port de bras, and stay on the rhythm. You also have to open and close the fan before starting the pattern again.”

Samantha Dunster, the ballet mistress of Orlando Ballet, is a Kitri veteran and coach. She encourages dancers to practice using the fan at home with music. “If the dancers have never used a fan before, I give them one to take home,” she says. “I teach them how to use it in a natural way, as though they were really overheated.” She then incorporates the fan into the variation. “I find if I do it the other way, a lot of fans are broken.”

Leticia Oliveira, first soloist with Houston Ballet, first performed the Don Q variation for a competition at the tender age of 12. She says that after dropping and breaking her fair share of fans, she came up with a repair plan. “I started taping them together to save money,” she says. “I went through a lot of tape.” She also found a solution to another problem. “If you do the full length Don Q, you can get really sweaty, and that’s how the fan slips. I rosin my hands before the variation.”

“In Russia, the ballerinas tie the fan to the wrist,” says Irina Kolpakova, ABT’s ballet mistress and Don Q coach. “The variation is so short that if you lose the fan, it will be over before you get it back!” She asks ABT dancers to try working with the string first, as it’s easy to use and “no one will see it if you put makeup on it.” Kolpakova says her dancers tie the fan on during rehearsal, but rarely during performance. With a fan delicately attached to her own wrist, Kolpakova demonstrated various flirtatiously playful movements, épaulement, and port de bras during the interview. Her Kitri needed no words. The fan seemed to be part of her anatomy, and she was brilliantly seductive and disarming in her demonstration. “You see how easy?” she said. Not really, Madame!

There have been a few fan faux pas over the years. “I remember having to tie the fan to my hand a couple of times, because I had an accident or two where it ended up in the orchestra pit!” says Guerrero. “After that, you over-grab the fan, and that’s when you end up breaking it!” And Dunster recalled a dancer who, while rehearsing the first act fan dance, tossed it to Basilio, who missed it, sending it flying right through an open studio window. Maybe that string’s not such a bad idea after all!

The fan variation is often chosen to be performed in galas and competitions. Because Kitri’s character develops during three acts, it can be difficult to pull the variation out to perform at galas. On the other hand, Kunikova says that once you decide what kind of girl your Kitri is, you should easily be able to conjure her up for a gala performance. And ABT’s Kolpakova says, “Kitri’s persona is so clear, the ballerina can dance the fan variation in full character without a problem.”

Kirkland says that in order to do the solo with conviction, the dancer must keep in mind that it is part of Kitri and Basilio’s marriage celebration.

“Unfurling the fan like the opening of a flower accentuates the dignity, strength, and fullness of their love. Of course, a little spice, a little taste of Kitri’s willful temperament is a reminder of who is really in control. But the games are over, and trust, commitment, and joy can reveal themselves. In the end, true love is the winner.”

Nancy Alfaro, who danced with Meredith Monk and Robert Wilson, lives and writes in New York.