Don Quixote

Grand Ballet in five acts and eleven scenes
Music by Ludwig Minkus
Libretto by Marius Petipa
Décor by Pavel Isakov (Act 1, scenes 1 and 2), Ivan Shangin (Act 2, scene 3, Act 3, scene 5 and Act 4, Scene 8) and Fedor Shenian (Act 2, scene 4; Act 3, scenes 6 and 7)

World Première
26th December [O.S. 14th December] 1869
Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

Original 1869 Cast
Don Quixote
Wilhelm Vanner

Sancho Panza
Vassily Geltser

Anna Sobeshchanskaya

Sergei Sokolov

Pelagaya Karpakova

Dmitri Kuznetsov

Saint Petersburg Première
21st November [O.S. 9th November] 1871
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre

Original 1871 Cast
Don Quixote
Timofei Stukolkin

Alexandra Vergina

Lev Ivanov

Nikolai Goltz

Based on the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote tells the story of the old hidalgo, who reads many chivalric romance novels. One day, with Sancho Panza as his squire, Don Quixote sets out on an adventure as a medieval knight to bring justice to the world and honour to Dulcinea, the lady of his dreams.

Timofei Stukolkin as Don Quixote (1871)
Timofei Stukolkin as Don Quixote (1871)

Don Quixote was the first and is the most famous of Petipa’s Grand ballets with a Spanish theme. Prior to Don Quixote, Petipa had created other short ballets with a Spanish theme, but this was the first of his Grand ballets that embodied his knowledge of Spanish dance and culture, knowledge that he obtained during the three years he spent in Spain.

Cervantes’s novel was first adapted into a ballet in 1740 by Austrian choreographer Franz Hilverding in Vienna. A second ballet adaptation was later staged in 1768 by Jean-Georges Noverre in Vienna to music by the Austrian composer Josef Starzer; this version was possibly a revival of Hilverding’s original ballet. In 1808, Charles Didelot choreographed and staged his own ballet version of Don Quixote in a two-act production to the music of the composer Venua for the Imperial Ballet in Saint Petersburg. Didelot’s Don Quixote made its première in London at Her Majesty’s Theatre in a revival by James D’Egville on the 14th February 1809. In 1839, a new version of Don Quixote was choreographed and staged by Paul Taglioni for the Berlin Court Opera Theatre and in 1843, his uncle Salvatore Taglioni staged his own production of the ballet at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy.

Petipa’s Don Quixote was originally produced for the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow in four acts and eight scenes and marked the beginning of the collaboration between Petipa and Ludiwg Minkus. Originally, Petipa had planned for Cesare Pugni to be the ballet’s composer, but by then, Pugni had fallen on hard times due to his severe alcoholism and depression. His collaboration with Petipa was by that point in great decline for he had become all the more unreliable, so in the end, Petipa had to look elsewhere for a composer for his new ballet. He turned to Minkus, whom he had first noticed through the composer’s collaboration with Arthur Saint-Léon. Minkus’s score for Don Quixote certainly contains Spanish-themed melodies, but he never strayed from keeping the music as a classical musique dansante score, complete with polkas, Viennese-waltzes and the like. Petipa and Minkus’s Don Quxiote had its world première on the 26th December [O.S. 14th December] 1869 at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow.

Eugenia Sokolova as Kitri
Eugenia Sokolova as Kitri

Saint Petersburg revival
Two years after its world première, Petipa and Minkus mounted Don Quixote for the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg in an expanded edition of five acts and eleven scenes. For the 1871 revival, many changes were made to the libretto. One prime example is that it was in this staging that the roles of Kitri and Dulcinea became a dual role. In the 1869 production, they were two separate roles for two different ballerinas and rather than mistaking Kitri for Dulcinea, Don Quixote regarded her as his protegée. There is some confusion regarding the history of the Grand Pas des toreadors. According to early Soviet historians, the number is originally from Zoraya, the Moorish Girl in Spain  and it was widely believed that Gorsky transferred this piece into Don Quixote, but this theory has turned out to be false, at least partially. The Grand Pas des toreadors is part of the 1882 published edition of the full-length score, meaning it was already in Don Quixote by the time Gorsky revived the ballet. It is possible that either Petipa interpolated it from Zoraya, the Moorish Girl in Spain into Don Quixote or Minkus originally composed the piece for Don Quixote to begin with. In modern productions, the roles of the toreadors are for men, but in Petipa’s staging, they were danced by women en travesti.

Another significant change was that the comic scene of Basilio’s mock suicide was changed into a more dramatic scene in which Kitri threatens to kill herself rather than marry Gamache. This scene was also transferred from the third act to the second act and happened before the Windmill scene, rather than after. A new fifth act was added with new characters, the Duke and Duchess and it was in their castle that the final act took place, not the tavern from the 1869 production. Finally, the 1871 revival ended with a new epilogue in which Don Quixote, sad and broken, returned home to die, proving that this new production was a far cry from the original 1869 production. While the original Moscow production was a heart-warming comedy, the subsequent Saint Petersburg revival was a serious drama.

The Saint Petersburg première of Petipa’s Don Quixote took place on the 21st November [O.S. 9th November] 1871 and led to a long collaboration between Petipa and Minkus that would last until 1886. However, it was Alexander Gorsky’s 1902 revival that would serve as the basis for all modern productions of Don Quixote.


Don Quixote in the 20th Century
Gorsky originally staged his revival for the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, with the first performance taking place on the 19th December [O.S. 7th December] 1900. This revival modified Petipa’s scenario to three acts and six scenes and Minkus’s score was trimmed and supplemented with new music by the composer, Anton Simon. In 1902, the Director of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres, Col. Vladimir Telyakovsky invited Gorsky to mount his revival of Don Quixote for the Imperial Ballet. More changes were added to the revival, especially the supplementation of variations from other ballets that became traditional variations of Don Quixote. While it had been well-received in Moscow, Gorsky’s revival shocked the Saint Petersburg balletomanes with its realistic crowd scenes and décor and they stated that the revival was a mutilation of Petipa’s original masterpiece by one of his former students. Petipa himself was outraged by the revival and when he attended a dress rehearsal, he was so furious with the changes Gorsky had made to his beloved ballet that he shouted out loud: “Will someone tell that young man that I am not yet dead?!”

Lithograph of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on campaign; engraving by Karl Weyermann after a drawing by Ivan Agapi (1872)
Lithograph of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on campaign; engraving by Karl Weyermann after a drawing by Ivan Agapi (1872)

Following its Saint Petersburg première, Gorsky’s revival of Don Quixote did not last long in the Imperial Ballet repertoire, but, nevertheless, it was not forgotten and eventually reappeared in Saint Petersburg throughout the 1910s, eventually finding a permanent place in the repertoire.

Today, Don Quixote is presented in various productions by different companies all over the world, all of which stem from Gorsky’s revival. What is danced today as Don Quixote is very different from both Petipa’s original 1869 production and his 1871 revival. The ballet lived on in Russia well after the 1917 revolution, with Minkus’s score going through a galaxy of alterations along the way. In 1923, Soviet choreographer, Fyodor Lopukhov staged a new version of the ballet for the former Imperial Ballet in Leningrad that included a new “Fandango” by Czech composer Eduard Nápravník. Rostislav Zakharov staged another new version of Don Quixote for the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1940, which included new music by Vassily Soloviev-Sedoy. These additions eventually found their way into the Leningrad production. In 1946, Pyotr Gusev staged another version of Don Quixote at the Kirov/Mariinsky Theatre, with the original libretto modified by Yuri Slonimsky, new dances by Nina Anisimova for the tavern scene and the décor restored from the original 1902 designs prepared for Gorsky’s Saint Petersburg staging. This production is still danced today by the Mariinsky Ballet.

Vera Trefilova as the Street Dancer (ca. 1900)
Vera Trefilova as Kitri (ca. 1900)

Petipa’s choreography for Don Quixote also fell victim to a galaxy of revisions and alterations. It remains unknown if any of his choreography survived the ballet’s many Soviet revisions, though it is highly likely that Petipa’s choreography is lost. Only one passage of his choreography seems to have survived, as there is one variation that was notated in the Stepanov notation method and is part of the Sergeyev Collection. It is a variation for Kitri, notated when performed by Vera Trefilova. However, it was not just Petipa’s choreographic steps that were heavily revised and changed. The Soviet productions presented a choreographic style that many seem to think is authentic Spanish and this same style has been retained in modern 20th and 21st century productions. This seemingly Spanish style, however, is not real or authentic Spanish dance style, but is rather clearly what Soviet choreographers thought to be Spanish. For example, in Kitri’s Act 1 entrance, she performs a step where she slaps or bangs her fan against the floor. This type of movement, however, is not found anywhere in traditional Spanish dance for the simple reason that if a woman banged her fan against the ground, the fan would break. As a result, what is presented today in Don Quixote is a very stereotypical picture of Spain and its national dances, which can give a false impression of Petipa. It can mislead modern audiences into thinking that he knew very little about Spanish dance, when in fact, he had thoroughly good knowledge of the subject.

Another huge difference between Petipa’s Don Quixote and modern productions is in the libretto. Petipa’s scenario focused primarily on Don Quixote, the titular character and was somewhat faithful to certain episodes from Cervantes’s novel. Today, however, the main focus of the scenario has been shifted onto Kitri and Basilio, with their wedding pas de deux being the ballet’s main highlight. However, in accordance with Petipa’s scenario, Kitri and Basilio are meant to be supporting characters and their story is only allocated to two acts, which is primarily due to the fact that they appear in only one chapter in the novel.

The earliest production of Minkus’s Don Quixote in the west was staged by Anna Pavlova in 1924 when she danced in a two-act abridgement of Gorsky’s revival at the Royal Opera House in London.


Don Quixote fights the giant spider (1869)
Don Quixote fights the giant spider (1869)

The Dream

The Dream scene is one of the most famous scenes in the ballet, in which Don Quixote, after being knocked out unconscious from attacking the windmills, dreams he is in the enchanted garden of his beloved Dulcinea. This is perhaps one of the prime examples of what Gorsky changed in his 1902 revival and his changes have been retained in modern productions. What is danced today as The Dream scene is very far derived from what Petipa staged in both his original production and his finalised revival. In Petipa’s staging, The Dream scene began with Don Quixote, dressed in shining armour, fighting various monsters, the last of which was a giant spider on its web (shown in the lithograph above). According to the Kirov Prima Ballerina Ninel Kurgapina, this scene was retained in the ballet until the 1930s. After Don Quixote successfully slew the beasts, he cut the spider and its web in half, which revealed the garden of Dulcinea. Don Quixote was brought before Dulcinea, who was accompanied by a huge corps de ballet of dryads and seventy-two students as little amours. After a series of dancing, he knelt before her and everything vanished.

Today’s stagings of The Dream scene contain three famous variations, but these variations were not part of Petipa’s scenario. It was Gorsky who added these variations to The Dream scene and none of them were composed by Minkus:

  • Variation of the Queen of the Dryads – this variation is set to music was composed by Anton Simon and was added to Gorsky’s 1900 revival as a variation for a new character the Queen of the Dryads, as it was Gorsky who created the character. This variation is sometimes used as an alternative for the female variation in the so-called Le Corsaire Pas de deux.
  • Variation of Amour – this variation was composed by the composer Barmin for Varvara Nikitina’s performance in Paquita circa. 1885. This is why this variation is traditionally danced today in the Paquita Grand Pas Classique. For his 1902 revival, Gorsky interpolated this variation into Don Quixote as a variation for Amour, where it has since been retained in modern productions.
  • Variation of Dulcinea – this is a supplementary variation that was composed by Riccardo Drigo for Elena Cornalba’s performance in The Vestal in 1888. It was later added to Don Quixote by Gorsky as a variation for Matilda Kschessinskaya’s performance as Kitri/Dulcinea in his 1902 revival.
Lithograph of The Dream scene; engraving by Karl Wyermann after a drawing by Ivan Agapi (1872)

Lithograph of The Dream scene; engraving by Karl Wyermann after a drawing by Ivan Agapi (1872)

Variation of Kitri “L’éventails”

The famous so-called “fan” variation of Kitri in the Grand Pas de deux has quite a mysterious history. Out of all the ballet scores that still exist today, the music score for Don Quixote has one of the most complicated histories. Almost from the beginning, the score has been published in very negligent editions, further adding to the confusion of many historians. For many years, it has been widely believed that the “fan” variation, entitled “L’éventails“, was composed by Riccardo Drigo for Matilda Kschessinskaya’s performance as Kitri in Gorsky’s 1902 revival, just as he composed the famous Variation of Dulcinea for Kschessinskaya. However, that is not the case after all.

The music for this variation contains uncanny similarities to a harp variation composed by Minkus for Night and Day that was created for the celebratory gala of the coronation of Tsar Alexander III. The harp variation in question is the Variation of the Queen of Day, so it seems that it was in fact Minkus who composed the “fan” variation. According to Yuri Burlaka, the variation was not composed for Don Quixote, but for Roxana, the Beauty of Montenegro.

How this variation ended up in Don Quixote is uncertain. It is possible that it was Gorsky who interpolated it for his 1902 production, where it is reputed to have been first danced by Kschessinskaya in the Grand Pas de deux (also known as the “Wedding Pas de deux“) and it has remained in there ever since as the traditional variation for Kitri.



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  • Kant, Marion/Various (2007) The Cambridge Companion to Ballet. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  • Kschessinskaya, Matilda, H.S.H. The Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky (1960) Dancing in Petersburg: The Memoirs of Mathilde Kschessinskaya. Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books Ltd
  • Letellier, Robert Ignatius (2008) The Ballets of Ludwig Minkus. Cambridge Scholars Publishing
  • Pritchard, Jane with Hamilton, Caroline (2012) Anna Pavlova: Twentieth-Century Ballerina. London, UK: Booth-Clibborn Editions
  • Scholl, Tim (1994) From Petipa to Balanchine: Classical Revival and the Modernization of Ballet. Abingdon, Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge
  • Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd

Photos and images: © Dansmuseet, Stockholm © Большой театр России © Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Государственный академический Мариинский театр © CNCS/Pascal François © Bibliothèque nationale de France © Musée l’Opéra © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet © АРБ имени А. Я. Вагановой © Михаил Логвинов © Михайловский театр, фотограф Стас Левшин. Партнёры проекта: СПбГБУК «Санкт-Петербургская государственная Театральная библиотека». ФГБОУВО «Академия русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой» СПбГБУК «Михайловский театр». Михаил Логвинов, фотограф. Martine Kahane.