"Don Quixote" may be the least serious or soul-stirring ballet created by Marius Petipa, choreographer of such marvels as "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty." Yet, under the right conditions, "Don Quixote" can also be the most fun.
Achieving this requires wit, a great sense of style, and razor-sharp timing. These were only sporadically in evidence Tuesday evening when the Mariinsky Ballet (reverting to its original name after years of calling itself the Kirov) gave the first in a week's performances of "Don Quixote" at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
The evening began on a high note, led by the international star Diana Vishneva, who appears with several companies, most notably the Mariinsky and American Ballet Theatre. She is a dazzling dancer, strong and fleet, and one who attacks space with exciting zest.
After that first display of blazing energy, though, the long, four-act ballet succumbed to a marked unevenness in the company's ranks. There was no chemistry between Miss Vishneva and her partner, Evgeny Ivanchenko, who lacked elegance and - towering above her - was physically ill-matched with the ballerina.
In addition, Miss Vishneva brought little else but technique to a role that can be mischievous, boisterous and fun-loving.
"Great ballerina with phenomenal jumps" was the message she sent, but she is capable of much more. A couple of years ago, she appeared here with ABT in a haunting performance of a scene from the ballet "Manon," dancing as a courtesan carried from one old man to another.
The other starring male role - the vainglorious bullfighter Espada - was given a stylish, matinee-idol performance by Konstantin Zverev.
The production is lavish, with massive sets reincarnated from designs created over a century ago, and, on opening night, that led to some extended delays.
"Don Quixote," the first ballet created by Petipa for the Mariinsky, stands alone for its common-man touch. The hero is a not very successful barber; Kitri is the village flirt. There are no enchanted maidens turned into swans, no beauties to be awakened by a kiss. Perhaps most important, there is not yet any involvement of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who gave Petipa the great scores for "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty." The razzle-dazzle of Ludwig Minkus' tunes for "Don Quixote"are hardly in that class.
Since its first performances, the ballet has undergone many variations, most notably by Alexander Gorsky, whose version is the one the Mariinsky follows.
New versions set to the Tchaikovsky score have come from, among others, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose fine production for ABT lasted for a decade until he left the company. (The performance is on tape, danced by Gelsey Kirkland and Mr. Baryshnikov.)
Over 40 years ago, George Balanchine created a version to a commissioned score by Nicolas Nabokov that focused the ballet on Don Quixote's spiritual quest. Same title; vastly different approach.
WHAT: The Mariinsky Ballet in "Don Quixote"
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House
WHEN: Evening performances are at 7:30 tonight through Saturday. Matinees are at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Through Sunday.
TICKETS: $47 to $135
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS