Sara de Luis garnishes Seattle Opera's 'Don Quixote' with classic Spanish dance
Seattle choreographer Sara de Luis brings Spanish dance tradition — her passion — artfully to the stage in Seattle Opera's new production of Massenet's "Don Quixote."
Seattle Times arts writer
'Don Quixote'Music by Jules Massenet, libretto by Henri Cain, directed by Linda Brovsky, conducted by Carlo Montanaro, featuring John Relyea, Eduardo Chama and Malgorzata Walewska, French with English subtitles, Saturday through March 12, Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$191 (800-426-1619 or www.seattleopera.org).
In Seattle Opera's brand-new production of Jules Massenet's "Don Quixote," there will be gigantic books on stage, a live horse and donkey, and of course singers, including Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea, who won the Seattle Opera's Artist of the Year Award in 2005.
There will also be — no surprise — dancing, Spanish dancing, as befits this opera derived from Miguel de Cervantes' 17th-century classic.
"Don Quixote" (or "Don Quichotte" as it's titled in its original French) was one of the last operas Massenet wrote. First performed in 1910 when Massenet was 67, it's a folktalelike distillation of Cervantes' epic-length picaresque novel, in which the aging title character is inspired to feats of fantastical derring-do thanks to too much reading.
Foremost among his delusions is his belief that village floozy Dulcinea is 1) a paragon of virtue and 2) likely to reciprocate his passion for her.
The score is spiced with unusual orchestral colorings, beguiling melodies and, above all, feisty Spanish flourishes — which is where Seattle dancer-choreographer Sara de Luis, a longtime champion of Spain's dance traditions, comes into the picture.
In Seattle Opera's warehouselike rehearsal studio, de Luis talked about her longtime association with Seattle Opera, some particulars about this new production and her passion for preserving and passing on Spanish dance tradition to a younger generation.
De Luis was choreographer for Seattle Opera's productions of "La Traviata" (1980, 2009) and "Carmen" (1982, 1987, 2003). Since 1986, she has been on faculty at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, conducting several Spanish dance workshops each year. In "Don Quixote," she says, the opera chorus will join in some movement. But the bona fide Spanish dancing will be done by de Luis and her four male dancers, including veteran Mexican flamenco star Raúl Salcedo. Their work will be closely woven into the narrative arc of the opera, at the behest of stage director Linda Brovsky.
"From the inception of this, she never wanted it to look like 'Here come the dancers,' " de Luis says. "We are part of the action."
De Luis' own big moment will come at Dulcinea's party in the show's second half: "There are two arias in there that are just gorgeous ... slow, lyrical, some of the most beautiful music in the opera."
While Salcedo and de Luis will be revisiting deeply familiar dance territory, the three local hires, Ross Cornell, Kyle Johnson and Demetrius Tabron, come from disciplines that range from modern dance to musical theater. Their task is to pick up the Spanish dance style — and pick it up quickly. ("You can't look like a modern dancer and you can't look like a ballet dancer," de Luis says.)
By "Spanish dance," she doesn't just mean flamenco. She's also referring to regionales (regional folk dances), escuela bolera (18th-century court dances) and a classical Spanish dance tradition inspired by the music of Spain's great composers: de Falla, Granados, Turina, Albéniz and Sarasate.
Her choreography for "Don Quixote" is clásico español, Spanish classical dance which, she says, "employs the technique of the flamenco school and the regional school."
But she can take these explanations only just so far before she feels the urge to get up on the rehearsal stage to demonstrate: "Movement speaks louder than words."
It certainly has in her career. Although she was born in New Orleans (to parents of French and Spanish extraction) and raised in San Francisco, it is Spain — where she's spent much of her career — that has an almost indigenous claim on her. That's clear from the way she demonstrates a series of classical ballet positions, then gives the Spanish version of them.
"You see the energy? Right away something happens ... a resistance, as if air was a tangible object and you could really take a piece of it. The Spaniards have incredible use of their torso," she adds. "The minute you let that energy go," she says with a snap of her finger, "it's gone."
De Luis' job is to teach her three dancers how to preserve a hold on that energy with their every move.
"A Spanish dancer's body is a percussion instrument," de Luis declares, "and we use all kinds of sounds with our fingers, with our feet, with our hands. ... The energy is rhythmical, the energy is physical, the energy is audible. It just surrounds you — and you ignite."
Spanish dance, she says, is her raison d'être. But other elements of this production have sparked her imagination as well.
Donald Eastman's marvelous set, comprised of gigantic books and other oversized desk paraphernalia (a Jacuzzi-sized inkpot, a 15-foot-tall quill), vividly conjures the larger-than-life scale of the fictions in which Don Quixote has lost himself.
"That's his life. That's his brain. That's his head," de Luis says.
And she's impressed with the way Brovsky has introduced Rozinante (Don Quixote's horse) and Grison (Sancho Panza's donkey) to their stage companions.
"The singers have rehearsed in the stables twice," she says. "It's called Get To Know the Animals Day." Steady rewards of carrots and apples, reportedly, are smoothing the creatures' way toward their appearance on the McCaw Hall stage.
Still, for de Luis the deepest satisfaction of helping to create this new production is the chance it's giving her to share with audiences her long immersion and deep expertise in a tradition she loves.
"That's been my role and my passion," she says, "to really keep Spanish dance alive."
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com
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