Basile – Don Quixote

Rudolf Noureev et Noëlla Pontois dans « Don Quichotte » – 1981 – Francette Levieux  / Fondation Rudolf Noureev  –
Ballet in three acts with prologue – Based on several scenes taken from the novel by Miguel de Cervantes – Music : Ludwig Minkus
Choreography : Ruldof Noureev d’après Marius Petipa

Without « Don Quixote », the legend of Nureyev wouldn’t have existed!

It was in the winter of 1960 that Janine Runguet from the Parisian Artistic and Literary Agency (in charge of cultural exchanges between France and the U.S.S.R.) went to Leningrad to organise the famous Kirov Theatre Ballet’s tour in the West. On one of her free evenings, she saw a poster for a ballet that was unknown at that time, Don Quixote” by Petipa, to music by Minkus. They tried to dissuade her from attending this old-fashioned performance, but she stood fast and discovered – speechless – the young Rudolf Nureyev in the role of the crafty barber, Basil. Convinced she had discovered the best dancer in the world, she was astounded to see that he was not on the list of dancers for the French tour. She demanded he be included but she was told that this undisciplined young man was barred from travelling abroad. It took all Janine Ringuet’s tenacity – she even went as far as contacting the Soviet Minister for Culture, Madame Fourtseva – to ensure that Nureyev be allowed to come to France and dance with the Kirov Ballet at the Palais Garnier in May 1961. Don Quixote was not on the programme.


Nureyev produced the first, full-length version of this ballet in the West, using the choreography mounted by Petipa for Saint Petersburg (Don Quixote is the only one of Petipa’s ballets that was created at the Bolshoi in Moscow, in 1869), without taking into account the many re-works carried out in Moscow in the 20th century. He danced and choreographed Don Quixote for the Vienna Opera in 1966, then for the Australian Ballet in 1970.

Two years later, he filmed his production himself in Melbourne, dancing the part of the dashing Basil, partnering Lucette Aldous as Kitri with the Australian Ballet. The film was released in cinemas the following year. Nureyev reproduced his choreography for the Zurich Opera in 1977 and again in 1980 for the Norwegian National Ballet. “Don Quixote” was the first three-act ballet by Petipa that Nureyev included in the Paris Opera’s repertoire, with décors and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis and John Lanchbery’s arrangement of the score. He perfected the choreography in 1981 for Noella Pontois and Cyril Atanasoff, with Elisabeth Platel as the Queen of the Dryads and George Piletta in the comical role of Gamache. Among the most brilliant performers of this production, Patrick Dupond – as malicious as anyone could hope for – deserves a special mention. When Rudolf Nureyev was appointed as Ballet Director at the Paris Opera in September 1983, he immediately organised a major tour to the Sports Arena in Milan, where, on November 20th – for the first time in the history of the Opera – he entrusted the three main roles in a key ballet to very young artists, mostly unknown: Isabelle Guérin as Kitri; Eric Vu An as Basil and Sylvie Guillem as the Queen of the Dryads, even though she was only 16. Marie-Claude Pietragalla was also dancing the part of Kitri when she was promoted to Principal in 1990, after the departure of Nureyev.

Rudolf Nureyev was especially fond of the virtuoso role of Basil, a picturesque character, cocky and good-humoured, which was a change for him from the parts he danced in the repertoire as romantic princes or in dramatic, contemporary ballets. Basil allowed him to express all his humour, his vivacity and his joy. Don Quixote was also the first film directed by Rudolf Nureyev, assisted by Robert Helpmann (who played the part of Don Quixote”) and the dancer proved he had a genuine gift as a director and filmmaker, which is demonstrated in the angles and camera movements. He proved this talent once again when he directed the filmed version of his ballet “The Nutcracker”, filmed in the Parisian studios.

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In April 2000, Rudolf Nureyev’s choreography was performed for the first time at the Opera Bastille and for this occasion, the Opera management had new décors and costumes made, using the models produced by the Russian artists Alexander Beliaev and Elena Rivkina. It was this production, and not the Georgiadis original, that was the subject of a DVD recorded in 2002 by François Roussillon and brilliantly danced by Manuel Legris, Aurélie Dupont, Jean Guillaume Bart, Delphine Moussin, Clairemarie Osta and the new Principal Marie-Agnès Gillot.