Festival Ballet Theatre lures ABT stars to O.C. for 'Don Quixote'

It's the story of a wandering knight devoted to defending his dream woman and punishing those who break the code of chivalry.

Don Quixote, the nonsensical nobleman who sets out on a quest with his squire Sancho Panza, gallops across Old World Spain in Festival Ballet Theatre's rendition of the classical ballet based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

The full-length production, running March 25 and March 26 at Irvine Barclay Theatre, stars American Ballet Theatre's principal dancers, Hee Seo and Marcelo Gomes, in the lead roles of passionate young lovers Kitri and Basilio.

Gomes, a Brazilian ballet dancer awarded the prestigious dance award Prix Benois de la Danse in Moscow for his role as Othello, has performed throughout the world. He has danced with Festival Ballet, Orange County's premiere professional ballet company, four times; "Don Quixote" will be his fifth.

Seo, a South Korean ballerina who, five years ago at age 26, became one of the youngest dancers in ABT history to be promoted to principal, will mark her second time performing with Festival Ballet Theatre.

"I'm thrilled," Seo said about her upcoming performance in "Don Quixote." "I love classical ballet, and this has energy and it's fun to connect with the role."

Seo, who will mark her first time partnering with Gomes, said she joined the performance for her love of dance but also because of Festival Ballet Theatre's artistic director, Salwa Rizkalla, who is a special mentor in the young woman's life.

Rizkalla established Southland Ballet Academy in 1983 and five years later founded the Fountain Valley-based Festival Ballet Theatre — with plans to enrich Orange County's artistic community and appreciation for dance.

Rizkalla herself was a professional dancer who worked under the direction of world-renowned choreographers Leonid Lavrovsky and Serge Lifar. She studied with ballet masters of the Bolshoi and the Kirov ballets and later taught at Goldenwest College in Huntington Beach and the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts.

"Salwa is feisty and she tells you the truth," said Festival Ballet Theatre company dancer Tara Ghassemieh, who will perform the role of Mercedes in "Don Quixote."

At age 16, Ghassemieh was offered a full scholarship to join the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre in New York. She went on to roles in the Broadway show "Movin' Out,"the film "Step Up" and television shows "Gossip Girl" and "CSI."

At 21, she broke her back. She would spend the next couple of years getting healthy again.

Rizkalla guided her.

"I needed the queen to retrain my body, and it was her that made me a ballerina," Ghassemieh said. "A ballerina has a presence about her. She floats. Nothing is overstated or understated. It's very much a being."

Mercedes, Ghassemieh said, is a sultry partner to a legendary bullfighter whose whirling cape and fiery chemistry create a grand presence.

It's a role that takes her back to a time when she had the utmost confidence in herself. She felt fearless and energetic. "Don Quixote," a ballet she has never danced before, has helped her regain strength, she said.

For Rizkalla's part, she wants not only to present powerful seasons of classical and contemporary dance, she also hopes to provide a nurturing environment for dancers and choreographers — a training ground that also draws top-tier talent.

Amid the fragile world of ballet, the company has survived on minimal donations for years, said Rizkalla, who nonetheless plans to enlarge the company and sustain its programs.

As part of the company's outreach, Festival Ballet Theatre members will perform excerpts from "Don Quixote" at noon Saturday at the Newport Beach Public Library. The program is being aided by a grant through the Newport Beach Cultural Arts and support from the city Arts Commission.

"My hope is that people know Orange County has a great ballet company with amazing old and young artists who are nourished right here," Rizkalla said. "Dancers feel at home with us and they love presenting a top level performance for audiences. It's a jewel in Orange County."

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If You Go

What: Festival Ballet Theatre's "Don Quixote"

When: 7 p.m. March 25 and 2 p.m. March 26

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive

Cost: $42 to $55

Information: (949) 854-4646, Ext. 1; festivalballet.org.

kathleen.luppi@latimes.com

Twitter: @KathleenLuppi

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