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Boston Ballet unleashes its young stars in ‘Don Quixote’

Dancers Misa Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio (top) and Kathleen Breen Combes and James Whiteside (above) recently rehearsed Boston Ballet’s production of “Don Quixote” at the company’s Grand Studio.

Photos By Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Dancers Misa Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio (top) and Kathleen Breen Combes and James Whiteside (above) recently rehearsed Boston Ballet’s production of “Don Quixote” at the company’s Grand Studio.

A rehearsal of Boston Ballet’s “Don Quixote” is really a myriad of mini-rehearsals, a multi-ring circus. Which is not surprising when you have five couples sharing a production’s lead roles.

In the center of the company’s Grand Studio on Clarendon Street, former Australian Ballet artistic director Maina Gielgud, who is staging the piece, oversees Kathleen Breen Combes and James Whiteside in the second act’s Gypsy scene. Over near the production department’s table, Paulo Arrais and Jeffrey Cirio — who, like Whiteside, will be dancing the male lead role of Basilio — shadow his moves. Across the room, near the rehearsal piano, Sabi Varga hefts the 8-foot-long lance he’ll carry as Don Quixote and tussles with his Sancho Panza, Altan Dugaraa.

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When the Gypsies, led by a whip-cracking Isaac Akiba, take over in the center ring, Cirio finds Misa Kuranaga — who’ll be the female lead, Kitri, to his Basilio — and they practice her supported turn on pointe in arabesque, while Arrais and yet another Basilio, Lasha Khozashvili, look on. Then Khozashvili tries that move with Kuranaga while Arrais goes to confer with his Kitri, Erica Cornejo, who’s still stretching.

Gielgud leaves the Gypsies to her assistant, Amanda Eyles, and goes to a corner to work with Breen Combes and Whiteside on their rond de jambe. When Lia Cirio, as the Queen of the Dryads, does her Italian fouettés, everyone stops to watch and then applaud. The room is a cheerful riot of color, some dancers in rehearsal clothes, some in their costumes. The prop table boasts assorted swords, parasols, and flagons, a guitar, and, standing in for the daggers, eight drain plungers.

No dance work is as closely associated with Boston Ballet as “Don Quixote,” which the company will present at the Boston Opera House starting Thursday. Thirty years ago, when the Wang Theatre was the Metropolitan Center, Rudolf Nureyev — then a still-spry 44 — staged his version of the 1869 Marius Petipa ballet for the company and also danced Basilio. That production and the subsequent tour through the United States and Mexico put Boston Ballet on the international dance map.

The piece’s history in the company since then has been a vivid one. In 1989, Laura Young, who was to retire after the production, injured herself in the first act. Jennifer Gelfand, then 17, who had played the puppet version of Kitri in the 1982 production, left her seat in the audience and replaced Young as Kitri. Dancing opposite Fernando Bujones, she instantly became a star. On opening night in 2000, Aleksandra Koltun tore an Achilles’ tendon at the end of the Vision scene and had to be carried offstage by Arthur Leeth as her Don Quixote — surely the first time a Don Quixote has ever held his beloved Dulcinea in his arms. Larissa Ponomarenko stepped in for Koltun. In 2003, Gelfand ended her Boston Ballet career in the same role with which it effectively started — and she did finish the production unscathed.

This will be the seventh time Boston Ballet has staged “Don Quixote” since that landmark 1982 production — not bad for a work that, drawn from a substory in Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century novel, has hardly any plot (Kitri wants to marry Basilio, but her father wants her to marry a rich old coot, Gamache), and whose title character doesn’t dance. The ballet will, however, be making its debut at the Opera House, and a number of dancers will make their company debuts in the lead roles: Kuranaga with Jeffrey Cirio, Breen Combes with Whiteside, and Lia Cirio with Khozashvili. Arrais is also new to Basilio, though his partner, Cornejo, danced Kitri the last time Boston Ballet presented “Don Quixote,” in 2006.

Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio are scheduled to be the opening-night Kitri and Basilio. Kuranaga was actually cast as Kitri in 2006, but she broke her foot and couldn’t dance.

“I didn’t think I was a natural Kitri ever,” she says after the rehearsal, “because I’m not the biggest jumper. I’m more of a turner; I don’t have huge jumps, and Kitri is a jumping role. But then I started realizing that Kitri is really like me. She likes to joke around; she’s not a princess, and I’m definitely not a princess. She’s a normal girl in town with lots of friends, kind of sassy. I like to poke boys” — she jabs Cirio playfully in the arm — “and get attention. There’s a competition between Kitri and Basilio to see who gets more attention.”

“Basilio for me is a jokester,” says Cirio, “a bit of a flirt, but in some way, he’s a true romantic.”

“That’s why I like him,” Kuranaga interjects, with a laugh.

“His life doesn’t run on money,” Cirio continues. “He’s a free-spirit kind of guy, and if you don’t like him, you don’t like him. But if you do like him, he’ll be your best friend. And I guess love conquers all in this ballet. He wants to support Kitri, but he thinks love is more important than money.”

“And clearly Kitri agrees,” says Kuranaga, “because Gamache is a lot wealthier than Basilio, but she chooses true love.”

“Don Quixote” itself, she adds, “isn’t the hardest thing ever in the ballet world. But I think Nureyev’s style is very challenging. It’s the stylistic arms, and the footwork, and all these different promenades.”

“Different hands,” Cirio chimes in. “And for me, it’s that Nureyev’s such a two-sided dancer — he did everything left and right — so everything he does is so technical, and he has these long solos.”

Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen agrees that other versions of “Don Quixote” are “easier to dance.”

“This is more intricate,” he says, “because Rudolf did enhance the choreography; he didn’t just use what was there. There are technically way more complex solos for Basilio and Kitri. And his version feels more connected to me than others. Sometimes I find ‘Don Q’ so choppy: It’s this picture and then — chop! — that picture. His version makes more sense as a whole story.”

This will be the third different Nureyev “Don Quixote” for Boston Ballet. In 2003 and 2006, the company presented the version that Nureyev did for the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1990s. Now audiences will get his first take, the Australian version from 1972, because, as Nissinen explains, that’s the one that Gielgud knows. Nissinen emphasizes that the differences are minute. “The battle between Gamache and Don Q, that’s one of the differences,” he says. “And the prologue is totally different in this version.”

One thing “Don Quixote” — in any version — is not famous for is its Ludwig Minkus score. But Cirio says it’s one of his favorite things about the ballet, and Nissinen concurs. “It’s so easy, it’s so spirited, it takes you with it,” Nissinen says. “It’s hummable, accessible. Maybe I would go so far as to say that ‘Don Q’ is the ballet world’s ‘La traviata.’ A great entry point.”

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.
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