Carlos Acosta first stamped his own vibrant interpretation on Marius Petipa’s Don Quixote in a production for The Royal Ballet in 2013. On becoming director of that company’s Birmingham sibling in 2020, he quickly declared an intention to restage the ballet, although the pandemic delayed this by 18 months. It would, however, be unfair to regard this as any kind of “hand-me-down” since Acosta and his creative team have fashioned a refreshing revamp that is a great improvement on his original, providing Birmingham Royal Ballet with its own distinctive brand of this exciting and colourful ballet.

Brandon Lawrence (Espada) with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet
© Emma Kauldhar

Necessity is the mother of invention and the particular constraints of touring to smaller stages compelled set designer Tim Hatley to rethink his original large set where the houses of Barcelona moved around the stage. These cumbersome perambulating buildings have been replaced by the firmer foundations of a now static set, which is not only serviceable but also more pleasing. Acosta’s earlier production had a windmill that also moved, now replaced by Nina Dunn’s excellent, sinister video designs that turned the windmill into that most realistic monster of Don Quixote’s febrile imagination. Hatley also renewed the costume designs and this whole new look for the ballet fitted the authenticity of Acosta’s Spanish narrative as tightly as a matador’s spangled suit (known as el traje de luces).

Don Quixote needs more than sixty dancers and many have their own individual time in the limelight with challenging dances. With nowhere to hide, the ballet is an essential component in Acosta’s strategy to stimulate dancers and raise performance standards. Despite cast reshuffling occasioned by a scattering of Covid cases, the company rose to the challenge with aplomb, exhibiting strength at all levels. Special praise is due to the corps de ballet’s sparkling unity as the Dryads in Don Quixote’s stupefied dream in an idyllic glade (another of Hatley’s glorious set creations).

Momoko Hirata (Kitri) with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet
© Johan Persson

Momoko Hirata is a delightful ballerina who would be a star principal in any company. She presented the comedic feistiness of Kitri, the headstrong daughter of the local innkeeper, with memorable charisma. Her subtle and elegant technique is often understated but not in the whiplash speed and precision of her multiple pirouettes. The confidence of her approach was shared by Mathias Dingman as Basilio, her lover, who danced with effortless preparation and a strong presence. He stopped the orchestra for several seconds when holding Hirata aloft in two one-armed presage lifts (any longer would have been showboating) and he nailed the difficult diagonal, corkscrew-spinning jumps at the beginning of his variation although, earlier, a couple of flat-footed landings were a tad heavy.

Momoko Hirata (Kitri) and Mathias Dingman (Basilio)
© Johan Persson

Brandon Lawrence is ideally cast as the famous matador, Espada, exuding a sun-drenched machismo that shone as brightly as his own spectacular traje de luces. A funny touch was to have one of the townswomen swoon as he landed a jump beside her. The character of Amour in the Dryad dream sequence is danced by a man and Tzu-Chao Chou reaped the opportunity with a striking burst of virtuosity.

Acosta has been quick to fast-track talented young dancers and Yu Kurihara (a Royal Ballet School graduate just four years ago) doubled-up to great effect as Mercedes the Street Dancer and the Queen of the Dryads, roles that require diverse aspects of technique and characterisations that veer from earthy sensuality to ethereal spirit. Kurihara delivered both ends of this artistic spectrum (a sort of Odile/Odette reversal) with panache, elegance and precision.  

Don Quixote is a great comic ballet and BRB honoured that tradition with gusto. Tom Rogers’ height lends an appropriate authority and nobility to the title role that rises above the foolishness of his obsessive pursuit of Dulcinea (Yvette Knight) on a makeshift pretend horse with the body of a wine barrel. His heroic air contrasted with Gamache, the rich popinjay dressed in yellow silks and frills (a masterful comic turn by Rory Mackay) who is courted by the innkeeper Lorenzo (played as a kind of Dick Dastardly by Valentin Olovyannikov) as a potential husband for his daughter, Kitri. Kit Holder was suitably rumbustious as the loyal but unruly Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s squire.

Kit Holder (Sancho Panza) and Tom Rogers (Don Quixote)
© Johan Persson

The unique selling point for Acosta’s Don Quixote lies in a Spanish flavour as distinctive as paella but one that rises above pastiche, especially in his occasional use of voices, enthusiastically responding to music and dance with the traditional jaleo – cries of encouragement – such as “guapa” (beautiful) greeting the rhapsodic Spanish music at the gypsy encampment (played live onstage by musicians amongst the dancers). Hans Vercauteren’s fascinating arrangement of Minkus’ score romped along with unerring momentum under Paul Murphy’s direction of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. 

This production has such warmth and energy that one was pleasantly transported to the heat of the Spanish sunshine or a campfire under a starry night sky. Acosta has brought Latin flair to reawaken this old Russian warhorse.