Don Quixote

January 2, 2013

Photo courtesy San Francisco International Film Festival

PBS Airs Fine Film Treatment of Nureyev ‘Don Q’

Last April, the San Francisco Film Festival screened the remastered and restored version of Rudolf Nureyev’s 1973 Don Quixote. In recent years this film has been more talked about more than actually seen. Don Q is an extraordinary example of how good dance can look on film when brilliant cinematography, here by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey, Cabaret), meets a theatrical genius.

Nureyev had choreographed the work for Australian Ballet and, here sharing directing credit with Robert Helpmann, subsequently recreated it for the camera in an airplane hanger in Melbourne where he had at his disposal a huge space in which to build a multi-leveled Spanish village surrounding an enormous central stage area. The new print looks fresh and detailed, down to the shading of the last ruffled skirt and the heel clicks on the soundtrack. PBS will present this new/old Don Quixote on June 6 on national affiliates (check local listings for show times). One can only hope that it will also receive a commercial distribution. It deserves no less.

This is an exuberant Don Quixote, bursting with narrative detail, comic characterizations, spiffy interludes, and fast-paced ensemble numbers. Nureyev restructured the ballet, opening it on the village square instead of the don’s library, for instance. This set the tone for a madcap interpretation that at times felt like Nureyev’s midsummer night’s dream. His most inspired shift was moving the figure of the don into center stage so that we often see the action through the old knight’s distorted but ever-so-poetic vision.

It made for integrated, convincing storytelling. Helpmann’s portrayal, gaunt, wide-eyed, more absented-minded than mad, but always heroic was as magnificent as it was touching.

Nureyev danced Basilio ebulliently, from the trio of pas de chats with which he initially bounded down the stairs to his hilariously enacted suicide scene. At times, however, it looked as if it took all his energy to pull the ensemble up to a level close to what he was aiming for. Lucette Aldous dances a fiery, flirtatious Kitri/Dulcinea, Ray Powell a roly-poly Sancho Panza, and Colin Peasley the don’s counterpart, Gamache.