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Don Quixote on Film
Restoring the Impossible Dream

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 3 December 1999 - I first saw Rudolf Nureyev's fun loving, large-scale production of Don Quixote, danced by the Australian Ballet, while living in Boston in 1971, and it was unforgettable.

It seems rather odd to be reviewing a work he created almost thirty years ago, for Vienna in 1966, but to quote Shakespeare, " Age cannot wither nor custom stale" ballet's most high-spirited comedy, already written about when staged at the Paris Opera.

Briefly, the adventures of Kitri and Basilio take them from the swirling peasant ensembles and high-stepping toreadors in the market square to the wild gypsy dances in their moonlit encampment, and back to the village tavern to the inevitable happy end and flamboyant wedding festivities.

Such a lightweight plot was never intended to be more than an excuse for displays of magnificent virtuosi dancing, both from the corps de ballet and the stars themselves, the New-Zealand ballerina Lucette Aldous as the vivacious, carefree Kitri, and Rudolf Nureyev as her sparkling, outrageous Basilio.

While I have since seen many enjoyable performances of the work, which, with the right dancers in the leading roles, never fails to delight audiences the world over, none is comparable to this one, immortalised in the 1972 film, conceived, danced in, and co-directed by Nureyev himself.

It is not only the best of the dance films he has appeared in (he was thirty-four at the time), it is also artistically, one of the finest dance films ever made, with Robert Helpmann as co-director, Geoffrey Unsworth as director of photography, and Bill Hutchinson as art editor.

Nureyev has allowed the camera to tell the story, moving it fluidly in and around the action, so it shows the audience what is most important at each stage of the action. He succeeded in making the film a different experience from that seen sitting in a theatre, experimenting with interesting over-head shots, close-ups of the interpreters, and unusual angles. No filming from the orchestra pit, which he abhorred, here.

The Australian Ballet is a strong company, the dancing exhilarating, but most of all the sheer fun of the work has been captured.

First released in 1973, the film thereafter inexplicably disappeared. On a recent trip to Paris, Janine Burdeu , head of A. B. C. videos in Melbourne, Australia told me why.

"By chance"; she said, "I happened to see an old copy of it about five years ago and even though the tape I saw was faded and scratched, the performances were so exciting it gave me goose-bumps".

"I was determined to see it properly, so I found the master tape but it wasn't much better ", she told me. " Then I finally managed to get hold of the original 35mm negative from Pinewood studios, and then the next four to five years were spent tracking down the original film which we discovered in various cans stored in houses and farms around Sydney as well as in London, and in restoring it ,which was no mean feat!

"One camera was out of focus, and this hadn't been rectified at post-production, the lighting varied from scene to scene, the sound-track, although it had been recorded in stereo, was unbelievingly in mono, some shots contained shudder, and we discovered that two different film stocks had been used, presumably because they were running out of money", she explained.

"Our aim throughout was to stay as close as possible to what Nureyev would have wanted and, with that in mind, we re-coloured it frame by frame; new technology reduced the shudder, and the sound-track was re-synchronised to video with the sound effects such as the donkey clopping and fingers clicking added later".

"And then I unearthed a film of them actually making the film, which intrigued me almost as much as Don Quixote. Nureyev had wanted it made, but they were all in so much of a hurry that it simply got lost and forgotten about. So that, too, has been put together, giving a fascinating glimpse of the mammoth undertaking. The film was shot on an enlarged stage in an hangar at Essendon Airport, Melbourne, and the set builders were working half naked because the temperature was touching forty degrees. There are interesting rehearsal sequences with John Lanchbery conducting the orchestra, and Nureyev, who only arrived the day before shooting , checking everything in sight."

At a press conference earlier this year, Lucette Aldous recalled the booms of planes overhead, and on the set the utter pandemonium of the seventy dancers, fifty extras, one mule, two horses, twenty-four pigeons, thirty chickens, and a parrot, without counting the four tons of fresh fruit and vegetables that arrived everyday for the market scene.

But for most of the cast, it was the smell of the fish, not so fresh after two or three days in the heat that was, so to speak, their strongest memory.

"The dancers treasured every moment with Nureyev", said Janine Burdeu. "Kelvin Coe would dance Rudolf's part, while the Russian dancer filmed, then Rudolf would dance, often until eleven at night , having been there since seven in the morning. And because they were running out of time, (the complete film was made in less than a month), Rudolf choreographed the scene at the gypsy encampment on the spot. The only thing he was difficult about, provided you did what he asked, was his own hair which the hair-dresser said became a bit of an obsession, but when you look at him on screen, he was even right about that."

As the last shots of the 100,000 feet of film were put in the can ready to be sent to London for editing, Nureyev, leather trousers over dance tights, was already heading for New York. Limited by time, he couldn't go back over scenes again, nor was he there for most of the sound dubbing. This restoration, using advanced technology to eliminate technical faults seems like nothing less than a miracle.

Nureyev's Don Quixote new restored version with Rudolf Nureyev, Robert Helpmann, Lucette Aldous and the Australian Ballet, featuring a documentary on the making of the film, A Little Bit of Don Quixote.

Music, Minkus. Conductor John Lanchbery with The State Orchestra of Victoria.

1999 International Arts, Inc

Also available on CD from ABC Classics

Available in the U. S. A. through Kultur Video, DVD

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