Tilting at Quixote

Courtesy Festival Ballet TheatreArtistic director Salwa Rizkalla eschews the traditional use of live animals when her company stages DonQuixote.

“It's difficult to do that in America,” she said mischievously. Traditionally, the ballet version of Miguel de Cervantes' signature work is performed with horses and donkeys onstage, but Rizkalla tries to avoid stable trouble whenever possible. Otherwise, she and her company, Southland Ballet Academy, stick to the basics of Alexander Gorsky's Russian choreography and Ludwig Minkus's music. Their staging of Quixoteat the Irvine Barclay Theatre this weekend, with guest American Ballet Theatre dancers Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes, will be decidedly simplistic—if distorted.

The tale of an overtly romantic knight in search of adventure undergoes some distortion anyway in the ballet world. The dance element focuses mainly on the escapades of Quiteria, the daughter of an innkeeper, and her lover, Basilio, a barber, as the duo—with Don Quixote's help—strives to persuade Quiteria's father to give his consent to their marriage.

Like the book, filled with a dazzling array of characters and points of view, the cast includes a variety of dancers and dancing styles, from gypsies to townspeople. Quiteria, a showstopper role, embodies the fiery Latin femme fatale down to her signature jump: an arched split-jet with the back leg bent, ideally tapping the back of her head.

In this rendition, the Festival Ballet Theater uses Russian choreography, capitalizing on Rizkalla's dance heritage and the spirit of the Southland Ballet Academy. Rizkalla attended the Higher Institute of Ballet in Cairo in her youth, during an era of great collaboration between the Russians and the Egyptians.

“There was a kind of cultural exchange at that time,” she recalled. “They built the [Aswan] High Dam in Egypt, and the whole ballet school was run by Russians.”

Rizkalla remembers two busloads of Russians arriving every morning to run the state-funded school in the traditional Vaganova way, complete with Russian ballet instructors; an atelier for point and technique shoes; and classes in academics, music, stagecraft and dance. Later, as a soloist with the Cairo Opera Ballet, she worked under such Russian greats as Leonid Lavrovsky, master choreographer for the Bolshoi, and French choreographer Serge Lifar.

“When Lifar received a telegram from Charles de Gaulle on his birthday, we finally realized he was important,” she recalled.

At her studios in Fountain Valley, Rizkalla passes on the Vaganova method to her young students, a technique that places great emphasis on the arms and the head and lends a broad expansiveness to the quality of movement. She also tries to give her students the performing opportunities they need to become complete dancers. “I got it all free when I was young, and I wanted to give back,” she said. “They need to have the same opportunities I had.”


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