Don Quixote
Carolina Ballet
Memorial Auditorium
Closed Sunday, Oct. 12

With its Don Quixote, the Carolina Ballet premiered another ambitious work in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium on Oct. 9. Company artistic director Robert Weiss has choreographed his own version of one of ballet’s most famous productions, setting it to a selection of Spanish and Spanish-themed music. Derived, like its famous antecedents, from Miguel Cervantes’ incident-rich novel of the early 17th century, the Carolina Ballet’s version is being presented in conjunction with the Nasher Museum of Art’s exhibition El Greco to Velazquez.

Don Quixote first entered the ballet literature in 1740, but it was not until the great choreographer Marius Petipa premiered his Don Quixote at the Bolshoi in 1869 that it became a staple of classical ballet. The lavish, multi-act dance continued to develop for a generation, and remains today in the repertoire of the Bolshoi (which will perform it in June 2009 as part the Carolina Performing Arts series in Chapel Hill). Variations were staged around the world throughout the 20th century by several great dancers and directors. A very different version was created in 1965 by Robert Weiss’ mentor George Balanchine, who set it on the brilliant young ballerina Suzanne Farrell and himself danced the role of the Don. She has recently reconstructed that version for her company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

So Weiss was bold and perhaps as quixotic as the Don himself, to create a new Don Quixote. Certainly this was an endeavor into a field mined with high expectations. One has great respect for so courageous an undertaking. But although there are no devastating explosions here, neither are high expectations met.

The biggest disappointment stems from Weiss’ decision to tell us, rather than show us, the story. Undeterred by previous unfortunate experiments along this line, he has inserted a narrator (often at a podium!) to explain things that could better have been danced. Much time is wasted this way, and all the talking drags down any dramatic arc that may have otherwise arisen. The use of the narrator seems like a failure of faith, as if Weiss feared the audience would not be able to follow the episodic progression of story segments chosen from one of the world’s most famous books. That artistic choice is even more puzzling when you consider the peculiar nature of the storylines of many great balletsGiselle, for instance, or even Swan Lakeand the ways that they are made understandable through the staging and by pure dance.

However, the visual production is strong, with wonderful sets, lighting and costumes, and clever, charming solutions to the need for horses and tilting windmills. And Weiss has made several fine dances (although his Don, the magnificent Timour Bourtasenkov, gets remarkably little to do). Particularly good are the scenes between Lucinda and Cardineo (Margot K. Martin and Marcelo Martinez sparking brightly), Dorotea and Ferdinand (Lara O’Brien and Attila Bongar whipping through some inventive choreography) and the women’s group dance that ends Act I (Melissa Podcasy moving beautifully through Don Quixote’s dream).

The showy dance of our dreams comes as the penultimate scene of Act II, with gorgeous dancing by Lilyan Vigo Ellis, Gabor Kapin and Alain Molina, as Basilio and Camacho fight over Quiteria, and she finally ends up with the man she loves. It’s got everything: group dances, solos, pas de deux, pas de trois, a knife fight and a clever stratagemeven a ballerina who can leap, and land her jumps unassisted. Do yourself a favor and leave after those lovely grand jetés. Before the curtain falls, the narrator returns, and the final scene is nothing but an anticlimax.