Orchestra Victoria Blog

Don Quixote, the Movie: An Exquisite Portrayal of Futility

Posted on 16 September 2020 by Tania Hardy Smith | Cellist, Orchestra Victoria

All sorts of crazy things happened during the film that nobody really knows about… 
Lucette Aldous AC 
Kitri, Don Quixote 

In Act Three, Carolyn Rappel, one of the girlfriends, leant too close to one of the 2800 candles, and her Spanish comb caught fire. Thankfully the fire was quickly extinguished and she was unhurt. 
Marilyn Rowe AM OBE 
Queen of the Dryads, Don Quixote 

In ‘72 I was chosen to perform a couple of children’s roles in the big screen adaptation starring my idol, Rudolf Nureyev, Lucette Aldous and the renowned Australian, Sir Robert Helpmann. What a thrill to meet these wonderful personalities at the tender age of 6!! 
Steven Woodgate, Balletmaster, Houston Ballet 
Young Don Basilio, Don Quixote 

Nureyev has not looked so good for years, Helpmann in slow close-up looms larger than on the stage, and Aldous is animated and brilliant. A touch of grace is added by Marilyn Rowe, partnered by Kelvin Coe, in their beautiful pas de deux. It is supported by the Trust's Melbourne Orchestra under John Lanchbery, who succeeds in making the old Minkus score, with his own tactful additions, sound better than one ever remembered. 
Geoffrey Hutton, The Age, July 23 1973 

The film, Don Quixote, premiered in Sydney on July 19, 1973 as part of the opening festivities of the Sydney Opera House. It had been an inspired suggestion by Rudolph Nureyev to take the ballet to the screen, and in the words of the current Australian Ballet Artistic Director, David McAllister, it was such a major achievement that although many performances have been recorded since, and some attempts at the genre of ‘motion picture’ have been made, nothing has been as compelling as this film. David also recounts that the film was one of the most exciting experiences for him as a ten year-old dancer.  

The ballet, Don Quixote, has been an important cornerstone in the repertoire of most major ballet companies since its first performance by the Ballet of the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow in 1869. The 17th century story by Miguel de Cervantes of the quixotic Don, and his search for his ideal, though imaginary, woman, Dulcinea, has inspired many choreographers to create a marvellous visual spectacle that continues to be staged across the world. Described as ‘ feisty, flirty and fiery’ by The Australian Ballet prior to their 2013 season, it has Spanish bravura, themes of romance and wonderfully alluring characters that continue to make this ballet so captivating and well-loved. 

The original version of Don Quixote was choreographed by French balletmaster and former principal dancer at the Mariinsky Theatre, Marius Petipa, in collaboration with composer Ludwig Minkus.  In his early years, Petipa spent several years dancing at Teatro del Circo in Madrid, and at Teatro Principal in Seville, describing a heady festival experience:  

I wore a Spanish costume, I felt just like a Spaniard, and audaciously invited an attractive Spanish woman to dance; and together with three other couples we tempestuously, madly did this characteristic Spanish dance. 

(Russian Ballet Master: The Memoirs of Marius Petipa, pg. 14-15) 

The collaboration between Petipa and Minkus was one of the most creative and productive ever seen, as the Classical Era in ballet manifested from 1871 to the early 1900s. Petipa was appointed Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres in 1871, and with Minkus as Ballet Composer to the Imperial Theatres, their output was phenomenal, and lasts to this day. 

Important collaborations such as that between Petipa and Minkus bring great works of art to life, and so it was when in 1966, Rudolph Nureyev re-worked the ballet for the Vienna State Opera Ballet, collaborating with the eminent English composer, conductor and arranger, John (Jack) Lanchbery, who rearranged the score. It was then staged again with Nureyev and The Australian Ballet in 1970. In 1972, Lanchbery was appointed Music Director and Chief Conductor for The Australian Ballet, after twelve years at Covent Garden as the Royal Ballet’s principal conductor. Following a season of Don Quixote, Nureyev made an ambitious proposal to the company’s Artistic Director, Robert Helpmann, that the ballet could and should be made into a film.  

Having Jack Lanchbery as musical director would have been a gift for such a project. Lanchbery had written his first composition for screen in 1950, and between 1950 and 1958, he composed the music for thirteen B-grade British crime movies. The 1971 ballet film, The Tales of Beatrix Potter was another of Lanchbery’s scores, with choreography by Frederick Ashton. This parallel career in screen writing continued until 1980, with the score to the film Nijinsky. Adapting the Don Quixote score to a film of the ballet could not have had a better protagonist. 

Filming for the ballet started in November 1972 and was completed by January 1973. The setting for the film was a disused aircraft hangar at Essendon Airport, outside the city of Melbourne.  The music for the film was recorded by the Elizabethan Melbourne Orchestra, now our very own Orchestra Victoria. Arriving the day before the shoot started, Nureyev danced the role of Don Basilio, partnered by Lucette Aldous as his love, Kitri. The cast also included Marilyn Rowe as Queen of the Dryads, Kelvin Coe as Espada and the then six-year- old Steven Woodgate as a puppet playing the young Basilio. Steven is now Ballet Master with Houston Ballet, but vividly recalls:  

Even at such a young age I do remember the “buzz” that was around Melbourne at the time of Nureyev’s arrival. There were constant newspaper articles about him and even the trams had signs on them stating his impending arrival.  

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello

Photo Jeff Busby
The story continues...

How incredibly exciting for a young dancer, as the name Nureyev invokes magical thoughts in all of us, and his dancing in this film is completely captivating. David McAllister notes “Many believe it is the very best of Nureyev on film and I think I would have to agree”. As his love Kitri, both in the film and on stage, Lucette Aldous is also full of high praise: 

He’s got perfect balance, musicality all through his body, no real mystery; he was blessed with all of that. There was one performance - we had a matinee and evening - he went home and he always had his steak and everything, and he came in and walked across to the back of the stage. I was doing my usual floor barre based on yoga and suddenly I thought, I’m not tired – there was an incredible electricity that came out, just walking across – I thought that’s the answer, that’s how we can get up and do all this. 

With only six weeks to complete the entire film, one can only gasp at the expectations that existed for cast and crew, particularly as Nureyev was such a perfectionist. Evocatively described by Marilyn,  

Nureyev had an incredible eye for detail: he was meticulous, temperamental and ruthless. He was also highly intelligent and could be most charming, always seeking the best in himself and everyone on the set. 
He was an enigma. 

In what has been described as merciless conditions, Marilyn also relates that the dancers would be onset for class at 7am, shooting would begin round 9am and continue on until 10.30 or 11pm at night. Lucette recalls with some relief though that ‘it was well done, as Bobby (Robert Helpmann) used to be there, being the dance and film actor. He was there before me at 7 o’clock makeup and then warmup”. Rudi insisted on five takes for everything, and in an exasperated aside from chief cameraman for Liza Minelli in Cabaret, and Don Quixote cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth remarked “ You know, Liza really gave me a run for my money, but I can only just keep up with Nureyev.”  

Despite the ballet having been performed onstage many times, costumes had to be remade for the film. As Geoffrey Hutton observed, in cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth’s innovative use of an overhead diagonal view, he succeeded splendidly in showing the dancer's full body with no foreshortening. And of course, unlike a stage performance viewed from afar, the street panorama of sunny Spain held no secrets for a close-up camera! Lucette is full of praise for Wardrobe Master, William Miles: 

Before we even started filming all the men were up there doing all the tapestries and my wonderful man, a Mr. Bill Miles, had first met me in Sydney in 1970 to do costume fitting for Don Q for the stage. But during the time of making all the sets, before we even started filming, Bill was trying to do the red dress to move like a fandango skirt, and they tried something with this material and that material. Finally the fourth skirt that he put on seemed to be really going, and it was 4 o’clock in the morning and he thought this is going to be the skirt. And he fell asleep on the floor. In the workshop. 

When Rudolph Nureyev is in charge, however, filmic realism has its excruciating drawbacks, as Marilyn discovered in one scene:  

The original costume of the Street Dancer, of course, had elastic straps to hold the bodice up, but Rudi declared that this film version would have NO STRAPS! This was an unheard-of decision for a dancer to have to perform strapless. He then insisted that the top of the bodice should be glued to my breasts! To assist in the bodice staying where it should, it was also boned which was extremely uncomfortable. 

Our rehearsals went on all day and as we were nearing the end of yet another take, Rudi said he wanted the entire sequence filmed without any stops. This we did, but at the end there was a deadly silence, and I thought it must have been a terrible take, then a huge burst of laughter erupted from Rudi atop the crane on which he was perched. Then everyone on the set fell about laughing too. Rudi had allowed the entire sequence to be filmed as my glued top came slowly unstuck to leave me entirely bare-breasted! As I had been in that costume all day, I did not feel the bodice coming away. Thank goodness that take ended up on the cutting room floor…. At least I hope it did. 

Setting the action in Spain in the 17th century also required some incredible feats of construction – a sea port, windmills, castle bedrooms and ethereal scenes for Dryad Queens had to be built inside the hangar and made safe for all involved. Steven remembers that as an excited 6 year-old, he was chastised for running around the enormous sets – all were two storey structures made of wood, steel and polystyrene. And of course, in the Gypsy scene, there were the exceptionally life-like windmills!  

The Port Scene was changed into the Gypsy Scene which had an amazingly real looking windmill. I got to watch Sir Robert swing backwards and forwards and fall off this thing quite a few times.  

Steven also recalls that it was summer, and incredibly hot, which played havoc with many of the accoutrements and people that were brought in as props and characters. Marilyn relates that the production designer was Barry Kay, who earned the name Barry Spray as he was obsessed with colour variations and roamed the set, spray cans in hand spraying everything in sight, from all the vegetables, fish and produce, to the costumes. And who could be most trusted to buy and sell in an authentic way for the film?  

The vendors were interviewed by Helpmann and Rudolph Nureyev in Melbourne, pretending to buy this and that, so they’re real vendors from the Melbourne market. But also as the set was built for the first time, all the balconies are for real, and so are the fish and the chooks and everything.  

As the vegetables, fish and other produce, and multiple live chooks were sourced from the market, after seven days even Lucette’s favourite Guerlain perfume wasn’t enough to mask the gentle decay of foodstuffs, and the inevitable barnyard detritus of chooks that lay untended on the set… But we can laud such artistic licence taken by Barry Kay, when described by Geoffrey Hutton as an invisible magician, “unobtrusively blending solidity with space and style, creating sets and costumes for Geoffrey Unsworth's cameras to play on in warm colour or a dim impasto.” 

The windmill-tilting adventures of a knight-errant may well have defined futility in the literature, but the effort invested in the making of this film is the antithesis of such a sentiment. With fascinating insights from Lucette, Marilyn and Steven, one cannot help but be impressed at the breathtaking discipline, dedication and patience of artists as they worked so hard to bring Don Quixote to life on screen. Marilyn speaks for all of us in saying it was an incredible part of our colourful history and as Lucette ruminates: 

Now I think, you know, how on earth, I look back and I thought well, was that me? 

Concluding with words from Steven: 

My dream had always been to dance with The Australian Ballet. Many of the dancers I saw as a young child in this production influenced my life as a young student in The Australian Ballet School and then later on as a professional dancer in the company. 

Colin Peasley was my Ballet Master, Frank Croese, stage manager then Director of Productions, Gary Norman and Gailene Stock my childhood teachers plus Lucette Aldous, Alan Alder and Marilyn Rowe who taught me at various stages of my career. 
What a wonderful memory to have as a youngster. It’s a classic dance movie and I’m so proud to have been in just a little of it. 


My heartfelt thanks go to Lucette Aldous, Marilyn Rowe, Steven Woodgate and David McAllister for sharing their memories. 

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