Final Stretch

I n addition to “the vocabulary and nuts and bolts of technique,” dancers should learn classical works that continue to be performed all over the world, New Haven Ballet artistic director Lisa Kim Sanborn contends.

Enter Don Quixote, headlining the ballet school’s big performance this Saturday at the Shubert Theatre. Inspired by Cervantes’s 17th-century novel, artists have been making Quixote ballets for centuries, with the “classic” version today incorporating music by Ludwig Minkus and other composers as well as choreography by Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky. Sanborn has adjusted that choreography to meet the number and skills of her current student performers, who range in age from 5 to 18. She eliminated an older drunken male figure, originally meant to be comedic, over questions about whether that figure “is appropriate for a family-friendly production.” She also divided the lead female character, Kitri, into three sisters, giving three seniors the chance to have solos as well as rehearse together. “They each dance the dance that is best for their abilities and stretches them. Both.”

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Likewise, Sanborn strives to give even her very young dancers “a character and a moment on stage” while incorporating them into the plot—for example, as chicks who chase a village shopkeeper. The kids learn how to enter and exit while gaining experience in front of a large audience. “It’s scary, and they knock it out of the park,” Sanborn says.

Opening her choreography notebook, Sanborn shows me how “I figure things out.” She starts with a list of all the children, then listens to the music and imagines the possibilities. Using her favorite colored pens, each character or group gets their locations, steps and movements charted in diagrams and text. For this show, “I started diagramming back in January,” Sanborn says. When asked if this is standard choreographic notation, she says, “No, I just made it up. And it works.”

Sanborn selected Don Quixote because “we hadn’t done it previously” and the music is “spectacular” with syncopated rhythms invoking Spanish dance styles. The piece “stretches” students in part by requiring a longer classical ballet skirt than they’ve worn in the past, which “lends itself to different movements.” A “different” port de bras (literally “carriage of the arms”) is also employed, particularly for the fan work, which is “tricky.” Dancers have to learn to “open and close the fan, not drop it,” while staying in sync with the music and their other movements, which may be polyrhythmic.

Sanborn chose the show’s other major ballet, Symphonic Nonsense, a “Balanchine neoclassical” work choreographed by former New York City Ballet soloist Tom Gold, because it’s a different kind of learning opportunity—“fast, exciting and demanding” and set to fun “music you might have heard in the 1950s, maybe in cartoons.”

Underlying the objective of giving a great performance are deeper goals for the students—working on and gaining new skills, learning how to collaborate, participating in a community, learning from role models while becoming one and developing life-long friendships, along with the “tremendous sense of pride” that results.

“I hear it all the time: it’s just ballet. And that’s true,” Sanborn says. “But it’s so much more than that.”

Don Quixote and Symphonic Nonsense
presented by New Haven Ballet
Shubert Theatre – 247 College St, New Haven (map)
(203) 624-1825 | $44-$68 (fees included)
Website | Tickets

Written by Heather Jessen.

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Heather Jessen is a poet and writer who likes asking questions. She’s in awe of the educators, artists and social workers who’ve helped New Haven kids and families during the pandemic.

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