You could say that among the surviving 19th century ballets, “Don Quixote” is the Rodney Dangerfield.
It doesn’t get much respect. It wears its lowbrow intentions a mite too proudly. It sprawls from the clownish antics of Sancho Panza stealing oversized fish to lovingly rendered moments of classical structure. But let’s face it: “Don Q” is about keeping the audience entertained, and high art is often perceived as tainted when it entertains.
The Kirov Ballet, not surprisingly, approaches it with no such hang-ups. The company opened its latest engagement at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, with the Kirov Orchestra in the pit, and leapt wholeheartedly into its 1902 production, with choreography by Alexander Gorsky after Marius Petipa.
Based on a dash of Miguel Cervantes, “Don Quixote” is the working-class, comedic love story of Kitri, the daughter of an innkeeper, and Basil the barber. The tale is an excuse for two hours and 40 minutes of bravura solos, pseudo-folk dances, cape twirling, castanets, a real horse and a mule, plus perfectly symmetrical lines of fair maidens in pastel tutus. The icing is a kitschy solo, added years later to the Kirov version, that’s straight from “The Arabian Nights.” Yulia Slivkina nonetheless waved her arms superbly and conjured up magic.
In fact, the entire company threw itself into the ballet’s multiple personalities with sincere spirit, technical amplitude and a pleasing musicality. It managed to convince even the most cynical observer that such folderol has a significant place in an iPod world.
Like any good epic, “Don Quixote” has a cast that feels like thousands (about 100 dancers are camped in Costa Mesa), and the audience was treated to quite a few soloists in a single evening.
The frisky main couple were portrayed by Olesia Novikov and Leonid Sarafanov, who started off crisply energetic. Novikov is petite, with pale skin, dark hair and a delicate face that recalled the young Geraldine Chaplin. Her arsenal included a time-defying balance and a playful spirit. The second time Sarafanov lifted her overhead, she clapped her tambourine onto her sky-high foot.
As the ballet went on, though, and its devilish tasks multiplied, her portrayal became more restrained, less free. By the time we got to what should have been the ballet’s peak, the grand pas de deux, both Novikov and Sarafanov performed cleanly but eschewed risks, opting for less flashy options in their variations.
The boyish Sarafanov danced with fully sculpted, outsized shapes, making his compact body appear bigger. He was the more spontaneous and ardent of the pair; none of Basil’s herculean tasks fazed him, even those one-armed overhead lifts. His wondrous control was an asset for finishing turns neatly but became a hindrance when genuine passion was wanted.
Ekaterina Kondaurova was the night’s genuine and pleasant surprise. This first soloist, with neon red hair, appeared as the sexy Street Dancer in the first act, as the serene Lady Dryad in the second and in a brief third-act variation. Each role showed off some special quality and an instinctive timing. One admired her highly arched feet. It wasn’t just the lovely line of her poses or the high kicks that grabbed the eye but Kondaurova’s investing her own personality into familiar assignments. She is one to watch.
Among the other soloists, Gypsy dancers Alisa Sokolova and Mikhail Berdichevsky emoted lustily. Elena Bazhenova, in the cameo role of Mercedes, tantalized with her deep backbends and lusciously rippling arms. Valeria Martynuk made a perky Cupid but slipped up with her toe work.
The character parts were played large and outlandish -- or maybe that was just the makeup. I counted three fake noses, but there could have been more. As in other productions, the errant knight of the title sleepwalked through the onstage chaos. Vladimir Ponomarev at least invested the fellow with some dignity.
Among the sets (originals by Alexander Golovin and Konstantin Korovin, restored by Mikhail Shishlianikov), the first act’s was particularly handsome, with romantic sailing ships on the backdrop.
The Kirov Orchestra raised the production’s enlarged Ludwig Minkus score to a high level, playing with satisfying smoothness and depth. Unfortunately, conductor Mikhail Sinkevich pushed the pace in the first act to the breaking point -- which may explain why Novikov ran out of steam. It can be a good thing when a conductor shaves some minutes off a three-hour ballet. But this is the Kirov, and there was no need to rush.
Kirov Ballet, Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 tonight (“Don Quixote”) and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (“Giselle”). $25-$115. (714) 556-2787 or www.ocpac.org.