At the Kennedy Center, American Ballet Theatre turns in an exhilarating ‘Don Quixote’

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Perched sideways in space, held high by her partner like a tureen on a tray, Isabella Boylston gazed merrily into the audience of American Ballet Theatre’s “Don Quixote.”

She beamed even brighter and — why not, with so much time on her hands? — jiggled her tambourine. We started turning blue. The jingles shimmered and rang, giggling at us poor souls anchored agog in our seats while all earthly life was happening on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage.

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No rush at all. Planets spun, azaleas bloomed, the pandemic vanished, and finally Daniil Simkin lowered Boylston from his spectacular one-armed lift — a lift that is a fixture, to be sure, in “Don Quixote” but was impressive here in its leisureliness. He set her back onstage with the kind of gallantry one might have thought extinct.

Boylston, as a playful but commanding Kitri, and Simkin, as Basilio, her equally assertive beau, led an effervescent cast Thursday in a production geared to excite. (Performances continue through Sunday, with cast changes.) Throughout its three acts, the technical demands and bravura effects rose steadily higher as Kitri evaded her father’s matchmaking, escaped with Basilio and finally got her wedding, as any 19th-century heroine of a comic ballet is due.

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With each variation, Boylston and Simkin, two of ABT’s aces of technique and theatrical pizazz, whirled faster and flew higher. When Boylston had a minor slip at one point, causing a brief, suspenseful break in the action, that mini-drama was in keeping with the eventful nature of the whole performance.

The exhilarating, vicarious rush continued through the last beat of Act III. It was here that Simkin, crown prince of partnering, master of the subtle, floating finish, topped off his manège of barrel turns by propelling himself through three iterations of his signature move, the corkscrewing 540 spin. It’s a feat, more than a classical step, with martial-arts edge. Simkin is an expert at it. What I enjoyed most about his execution Thursday is that he lifted the jump to a lyrical level, bounding lightly to earth and rocketing again, never losing his ease and joy. There is a purity to that.

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Boylston matched him with fouetté turns so fast you could almost feel the breeze. Which brings me to another rewarding aspect of this production: It felt like the embodiment of spring. As a bright, avian Amour, Léa Fleytoux lit up the dream sequence with her pearly line and delicacy. Ormsby Wilkins conducted the Opera House orchestra in a buoyant account of the Ludwig Minkus score, a maddeningly infectious mix of beer hall tunes and whiffs of Spain.

Santo Loquasto’s sets are lovely, especially the filigreed arches around the first act’s village square, with an ivy-entwined bridge and winding stairs, and the lamplit tavern where Kitri later fools her father into blessing her union with Basilio. Loquasto also designed the costumes, which are cheerful, with one or two misses. (Kitri would be better suited by a richer color than pale peach in the first act.) Natasha Katz’s transporting lighting made one want to linger in this happy, welcoming world.

This fine performance, cast from strength throughout, is a tribute to ABT’s longtime artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, who retires at the end of 2022 after a remarkable 30 years at the helm. This engagement is his last Kennedy Center outing with the company, and on opening night of ABT’s mixed repertory program Tuesday, Deborah Rutter, the center’s president, appeared onstage to thank McKenzie “for all the beauty, strength and glorious evenings here at the Opera House.”

ABT has dedicated this series to the people of Ukraine, starting each performance with the Ukrainian national anthem. Speaking to the audience before the performance Thursday, McKenzie mentioned how intimately the war affects members of ABT. It was a reminder of how international the ballet world is, and how widespread the Russian and Ukrainian diaspora within it.

American Ballet Theatre performs “Don Quixote” at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday. $29-$229. kennedy-center.org

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Saturday April 9, 2022