What a fabulous idea for Ballet San Jose to start its current season with an inviting "Don Quixote."
The work -- which runs through Sunday at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts -- is the only surviving 19th-century classical ballet comedy. It takes us far from the domain of princes, swans, witches and fairy godmothers into a world in which a stubborn father is trying -- unsuccessfully, of course -- to control a stubborn daughter.
But there is another reason why company artistic adviser Wes Chapman's staging of "Don Quixote" was such a good choice. For comedy in ballet -- it's a rarity in any period -- you need performers who can act as well as dance. Ballet San Jose has a long tradition of cultivating these twin qualities in its ranks.
The production's opening night performance on Friday started with a surprise. The day before, Alexsandra Meijer, who was scheduled to perform the lead female role of Kitri, was hurt. (She is expected to return for the Sunday matinee.) So petite soloist Junna Ige jumped into the breach. Her only opportunity to work with José Manuel Carreño dancing the male lead Basilio was at the dress rehearsal.
Despite a glitch during the fouettés in the third act, Ige turned the challenge into a triumph. She is a refined yet strong technician who sails through the air like a feather and knocks out sequential pirouettes and staccato steps as if carving them into space. Fearless in her attacks and yet soft and yielding into back bend, Ige brought all of these qualities to an adorable Kitri.
The handsome Carreño -- who stepped into the production rather late after the original male lead pulled out -- impressed with his assurance. Rock solid in the one-handed lifts, he turns beautifully and partnered Ige securely. To see him drop her from an overhead lift into a fish dive was breathtaking. What he did not bring with him is an essential spark, a sense of electricity and daring.
Chapman's staging allowed for lively character-based storytelling. It started with a charming dumb (pantomime) show, including a regal Dulcinea, that told us about the role Cupid (a perky Maria Jacobs-Yu) plays in our lives. Maximo Califano's detailed Gamache, the standard fop and object of derision, here also showed vulnerability and an essential loneliness, not withstanding his cupidity. As Kitri's father, Lorenzo, Anton Pankevitch created a character who suffered from a mean streak and servility that almost went beyond the comedic. Beanpole-thin Damir Emric's Don Quixote walked around with his head in the air, and yet when necessary, he stepped up to save the lovers.
The only disappointment came with Ramon Moreno's Sancho Panza. Long known as the company's premiere "jumper," Moreno is also a superb comedian. Had he been given the opportunity, he could have made much of the part.
But "Don Q" is primarily about dancing -- a lot of ensemble dancing to boot. Since the ballet's bones are solid, and Ludwig Minkus' score is so inviting, the choreography can be adapted to a company's needs.
Here, the first act's village square sparkled with flirting games, couple and communal expressions, not to forget the toreadors who strutted at their most macho. In a fresh touch, Beth Ann Namey's Gypsy Woman -- fierce, pliant and hotblooded -- became the gypsies' de facto leader.
While it was lovely not to make the ballet's dream sequence a white tutu dance, the choreography was pale with too many pretty picture poses. The Queen of the Dryads Jing Zhang's point work also looked singularly hard-edged, while Jacobs-Yu's allegro variation for Cupid was pristine. In other versions, Mercedes (a beautifully articulate Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun) is a kind of outsider, but here, her tabletop solo was, somewhat inexplicably, given to a barmaid character (Karen Gabay).
Santo Loquasto's pastel costumes, on loan from American Ballet Theatre, circumvented the strong colors of Spanish stereotypes. Loquasto also created a stark windmill setting for Act 2, while he rest of the sets were adapted from the ones Hans Christian Molbech created for Ballet San Jose's 2008 "Toreador." They were serviceable.
And in a welcome change in approach to the music, conductor George Daugherty de-emphasized Minkus' propensity for heavy beats.
Ballet San Jose
When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd.
Tickets: $30-$105, 408-288-2800, www.balletsj.org