“I’ve been wanting to do a Don Quixote for some of our ballerinas,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet’s artistic director, Peter Boal. “Kaori (Nakamura) and Carrie (Imler) danced it a decade ago but I wanted a fresh version.”
Would Mikhail Barishnikov allow PNB to use his version? No, he wouldn’t, but he mentioned that Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky was even then creating a new Don Quixote for Dutch National Ballet. A flurry of trans-Atlantic communication followed, ending with Boal flying to Amsterdam in 2010 to see it.
Boal was bowled over by its choreography, its drama, its color, its humanity, humor and charm, and despite the enormous cost and effort involved of the biggest production PNB would ever have mounted, made the commitment. Fifteen people from DNB’s production came to help, from three of DNB’s stagers, tech staff and the wigmaker to the choreographer himself. Ratmansky reworked some of the dances for PNB’s smaller company of 46 dancers (DNB has 80), and because the McCaw Hall stage is a little smaller than the Amsterdam one, crowd scenes could use a smaller number.
Don Quixote opens here February 3 in its North American premiere, running through February 12. Boal is still raising the funds for it, his biggest hurdle, but it is looking to be a wonderfully successful addition to PNB’s repertoire.
“I loved the fact that Ratmansky wanted actors to do Don Quixote himself and Sancho Panza,” says Boal. Ratmansky used a comedy duo in Amsterdam, but Boal knew personally a Seattle actor, famous for his TV and movie roles, and now deeply involved in working to encourage film arts here. Tom Skerritt, he thought, would be the perfect fit, even the physical resemblance. (Skerritt is quite tall, thin, craggy-faced and even the right age, not far off 80.)
“My first reaction, when Peter suggested it, was a big smile,” says Skerritt. He and Boal are fresh from rehearsal, on their lunch break the week before opening night.
“He came to see Roméo et Juliette [in 2008],” says Boal, “and I thought I had a shot at getting him.”
Skerritt is no dancer by his own admission. He had even gone a while back to a class at an Arthur Murray Dance Studio, which had helped not at all; though he enjoyed music, exposed to plenty of it by his older brothers—Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Billie Holiday and more. Skerritt had been in the The Turning Point, a 1977 movie about ballet, but that was his total closeup connection to dance.
Boal kept asking, and finally Skerritt decided to accept the role as a challenge—“one you know isn’t going to kill you.”
Physically fit, a healthy man, he embraces life and looks forward to facing the next adventure. Just now, Don Q is his entire focus.
“It will help in everything I do. These are people telling a story without saying a damn thing. The closest I’ve come to mime is improv, and this is just another exploration. As actors we have to accept the willingness to make an ass of ourselves, to get out there and do it. I don’t know any other way. This (my performance) is full of mistakes. I’m very much like Don Q in my lifestyle so I can relate.”
Skerritt got into acting in the first place because he was shy and self-conscious and he thought it would help. “We are all held back by what other people think of you. Acting is shedding that.”
His Sancho Panza for Don Quixote is Allen Galli, veteran Seattle actor who among other roles was the Sanch Panza in Village Theater’s Man of La Mancha.
Both dancers and actors have been learning from the joint experience. At times Skerritt has been disconcerted by changes in cast in rehearsal and found it tricky to be at a certain place on the floor at a certain moment in the music, “and it’s so fast! I had to figure it out. Allen’s been great, I couldn’t do it without him, he’s the guide and straightens me out, tells me what to do next,” just as Sancho does in the story.
As a writer and actor, Skerritt hears the rhythm of words, but it’s been harder for him to hear the beat in the music and movement of dance, part of the challenge for him.
Working with dancers the same ages as his five granddaughters has been easy, but he is struck by their innocence, and their passion for what they do. “They’ve been in dance all their lives. There’s physical maturity, but a whole other side. They get up in the morning and go to class and dance until they drop and go home to sleep.”
“The first day he was in the studio, the dancers were a bit awed and timid around him, and Tom had to dance with Carla [Körbes] and he was was so enamored of her, he kept looking over his shoulder at her,” says Boal, “just like the story!”
A lot of what Skerritt is doing here, he says is about Seattle and promoting the riches in art that are so abundant here. “It ain’t about the money.” (Skerritt describes ballet as the most altruistic art form, such hard work by such dedicated people with very little financial reward to it). ”I don’t have to prove anything to anyone else but me. I’m a writer. I started a storytelling school here (TheFilmSchool, for aspiring scriptwriters). Everything we do improves me as an individual. I’m pretty focused on Seattle, which is pretty viable as a movie city. Everything needed exists here and I’m trying to hone that.”
At the moment, it all comes back to Don Q and this production. Boal has the last word. “The thing I love most is the storytelling, and the sweetness Ratmansky affords this Don Q. He comes on and everyone wonders who he is and what he’s doing here, and by the end, he has won every heart and loves them as they love him. It’s that kind of conquest through time that I find beautiful.”