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Interview with Eduardo Lao prior to the premiere of “Don Quixote” at the Staatsballett Berlin
On 16th February 2018 Víctor Ullate’s choreography of “Don Quixote” has its premiere at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Eduardo Lao, Artistic Director of the Madrid-based Víctor Ullate Ballet, is currently rehearsing the piece with the Staatsballett Berlin. In his time as a Principal Dancer at the Víctor Ullate Ballet, beginning in 1988, Lao danced all the key male roles in the work. Since 1991 he has been engaged as choreographer. In 2012 he won the “El Público” award for performing arts. He spoke with us on the work and its choreography.

“Don Quixote” contains some of the most exquisite sequences to be found in classical ballet. Yet they are danced neither by the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, making his way in a world that he imagines peopled with adversaries and peppered with courtly love entanglements, nor by Sancho Pansa, his faithful servant, ever rescuing his master from sticky situations. So who gets to dance the great pieces of choreography?
The ballet centres largely on the love story involving an innkeeper’s daughter, the smart and pretty Kitri, and Basil, the young village barber. For the premiere those two parts are taken by Polina Semionova and Marian Walter. There’s also a wealthy rival suitor, a father of the bride who’s only interested in achieving security for his family, a nocturnal elopement, and so on. The action onstage covers just one of the many chapters that make up Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, but in the ballet Kitri and Basil are the main protagonists and are called upon to pull off famous sequences - such as the wedding pas de deux in the final act - that stretch their dancing talents to the limits.

So what role does “Don Quixote” have in all this, if the lion’s share of the dancing is done by our pair of love birds? Is his crazed state his undoing in the end?
He’s kind of like a conductor holding all the threads of his onstage fantasy world together by virtue of his sheer presence. Along with Sancho Pansa, he uses his own bizarre methods in an attempt to grasp what is going on around him. The dancer portraying him does not use dance as a form of expression – a tall order for any ballet dancer. But unlike most classical ballets “Don Quixote” is a thoroughly human, decidedly jolly work, with the loving couple ending up together and the rival hosting the wedding festivities in his mansion. Don Quivote embarks on a new chapter as errant knight, heading off for his next imaginary adventure with Sancho Pansa.

World literature that’s Spanish through and through, a Spanish choreographer and you, a Spanish ballet expert… What does this ‘home game’ mean to you personally?
“Don Quixote” is a classical ballet but one of the few with a strong Spanish perfume. It has a special relevance for me because I was already part of it when Víctor Ullate created the choreography. I’ve danced all the key male parts in it, which means I’m able to pass on my understanding of the physical demands of each role. On the whole I feel it’s important to give the dancers an appreciation of the authentic Spanish character. Most productions of this work fall short in that respect and you end up with a cliché.

Can you elaborate on this authentic Spanish character?
Obviously, the “Golden Age” of Cervantes and the figures of his literary imagination was a different era; the Spanish at the time were destitute. And yet we endeavoured then – just as we do today – to savour life’s precious little moments and derive joy from them. Today we would say: to ‘generate positive energy’. It’s an attitude that the dancers should also be transmitting to the audience.

You yourself started with flamenco as a boy in Granada and went on to study classical dance in Madrid. How do you approach working with dancers who have a background in classical ballet?
A lot of choreographers approach the Spanish school, flamenco and the Escuela Bolera in a too folkloristic manner, down and unclear, as it were, with no semblance of order. But these dance styles have a lot of what we call 'chispa', a kind of elegance in motion, which is articulated with the eyes, not with the body. Something privately understood by only two people, interacting in the moment. I want my dancers to inject a measure of elegant earnestness into their roles. From a Spanish perspective, the more elegant the glances, arm poses and movements are, the more realistic they are. Less is more. In our piece, for instance, the 'gitanos' in Act 2 dance a fandango with no musical accompaniment. The rhythm is laid down by the clapping. That makes the dancers dyed-in-the-wool Spaniards, not Hungarians as in other choreographies.

Interview: Annette Zerpner
(c) Yan Revazov