Posted on 02 September 2020 By Rose Mulready

Grab the churros and the choc-tops, we're going to the movies! The lastest offering in our At Home with Ballet TV series, our last before a hiatus, is Rudolf Nureyev's 1973 film of the Spanish-flavoured classic Don Quixote, in which the barber Basilio wins the hand of his girlfriend Kitri with the help (and hindrance) of a visionary knight. Much more than a filmed dance performance, it's a complete and textured vision; one critic raved that "it was like a moving painting by a great artist." Before you step into the frame, find out about the film's rocky road to the screen, and what you should look out for as you watch. 

Don Quixote is brought to you for free by our Production Partner Herbert Smith Freehills


When the legendary Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected from Russia to the West, he both danced and staged the 19th-century Petipa classic Don Quixote, gradually adding additions and emphases of his own - like a steamy moonlight pas de deux for Basilio and Kitri in the second act. He staged his version at The Australian Ballet in 1970 (we still dance it today). A couple of years later, he decided to make a film version of the ballet with us; he directed it in partnership with our aritistic director Robert Helpmann, who played the Don. The film was shot in 25 sweltering days, in a hangar at Essendon Airport. The great Russian star, a tempermental perfectionist, drove the dancers to their limits in working days that lasted from early morning until late into the night. But the result is pure magic. The renowned New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff called it "a dance film for all audiences, an exciting, intelligently conceived spectacle ... that triumphs as a genre of its own." The film premiered as part of the Sydney Opera House's opening festivities in 1973, had a royal gala screening in London, played to rave reviews in New York ... and then disappeared for 25 years. This is a painstakingly remastered version. 

Watch out for: The many details that give a sense of earthy reality to the theatre set, including live horses, mules, pigeons and chickens; four tons of fruit and vegetables (which Nureyev insisted must be replaced every day); and banks of lit candles. 

Fun fact: The director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth, was a famous English craftsman who had shot 2001: A Space Odyssey and Cabaret. He orchestrated the overhead shots and tight diagonals that give such an intoxicating sense of closeness to the dancers. 

Deep dive: This 1970s documentary takes you inside the hangar to see the dancers, workmen, film crew, costume designer and musicians pulling off the staggering feat of making Don Quixote

Robert Helpmann. Photography The Australian Ballet archives


When Rudolf Nureyev defected in a Paris airport in 1961, the course of male ballet dancing changed forever. He quickly became a superstar in the West, particularly after forging an electric stage partnership with Margot Fonteyn. The two were feted like popstars all over Europe, America and Australia. Nureyev, with his big-cat sensuality, intense gaze and breathtaking technique, brought the male dancer out of the shadow of the ballerina and galvanised the art form. His versions of the classics foregrounded male dancing and his own performances inspired generations of ballet men. Brooding was Nureyev's brand, but the role of the cheeky barber Basilio allows him to explore his comedic talents. 

Lucette Aldous was a New Zealander who danced with several European companies, including the Royal Ballet. She had danced Kitri to Nureyev's Basilio on a European tour before starring in this film; she would later guest as a principal artist with The Australian Ballet, and now lives and teaches in Western Australia. Tiny and delicate, with huge eyes, she throws herself into the role of the sultry village belle with reckless abandon. 

Watch out for: The spectacular lifts in the Act I pas de deux, where Nureyev balances Aldous high in the air using only one hand - three times in a row!

Fun fact: Nureyev was notoriously prone to tantrums, and in the pressure-cooker of the Don Quixote shoot, he exploded several times. Paul Cox, the film-maker employed to take still photography of the shoot, was fired in spectacular style when Nureyev punched him in the nose for getting in his way.

Deep dive: Our principal artists Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo tell us why they love dancing the roles of Basilo and Kitri in Nureyev's production. 

Photography Paul Crowley


Ludwig Minkus, who also wrote the scores for La Bayadère and Paquita, rustled up a lively concoction of Spanish-ish music for Petipa's Don Quixote. When Nureyev came to make his version, he commissioned the composer and conductor John Lanchbery to deepen and extend Minkus' efforts. If you've been following along with our viewing guides for The Merry Widow and La Fille mal gardèe, you'll know that Lanchbery was the absolute master of this kind of work. His version of Don Quixote is reorchestrated to heat up the Spanish atmosphere and contains his own compositions to cover new inventions of Nureyev's. 

Listen out for: The castanets in Kitri's Act III variation. Olé!

Fun fact: When the film was being remastered, the sound was transferred from mono to the original stereo recording, but in the process the sound effects were lost. Every single foot tap, door bang, donkey clop, finger click and whipcrack had to be recreated, rerecorded and resynched. Mike Gissing, the sound engineer and a former drummer, recreated the sound of dancing feet with a pair of shoes over his hands.

Deep dive: John Lanchbery talks about spicing up the 'bread-and-butter' of Lanchbery's score. 

Rudolf Nureyev, Lucette Aldous and artists of The Australian Ballet. Photography Paul Cox


The innovative Australian theatre designer Barry Kay created a wildly colourful, palpably textured world for the tale of Don Quixote, which moves from a rowdy Barcelona port to the ethereal pastels of Don Quixote's dream to the candle-lit finery of the wedding celebration. He had also designed Nureyev's stage version of the ballet, but for the film version he tweaked his design to fit the different medium. Equally at home creating swirling patchwork gypsy rags, Kitri's saucy scarlet ruffles and the Queen of the Dryads' sea-foam green tutu, Kay lets his lavish talents loose on the hundreds of creations you'll see in the film. 

Look out for: Dulcinea's tutu in the dream sequence, a glittering confection of pink crystals. 

Fun fact: Because Don Quixote mistakes Kitri for his ideal woman, Dulcinea, the same ballerina dances both roles. It's a feat akin to capturing the different personalities of Odette and Odile in Swan Lake. The costumes for both characters - flirty flounces vs a lavish tutu - assist the ballerina in her transition between the roles. 

Deep dive: Our gallery of stand-out Australian designers on the Google Cultural Institute features a close look at Barry Kay's creations for Don Quixote

Rudolf Nureyev and Lucette Aldous. Photography Paul Cox