Capturing Kitri

Inside a coaching session with Elena Kunikova
Published in the April/May 2010 issue.

Don Quixote’s Kitri—feisty, independent and free-spirited—explodes with personality from the moment she leaps onstage. Fiercely stubborn, she and Basilio cleverly plot to marry against her father’s wishes. While Kitri is no demure princess, she displays a proud elegance uniquely her own. The Grand Pas de Deux in Act III is the ballet’s highlight, and Kitri’s variation, with its intricate pointework, fluttering fan and Spanish flavor, gives dancers a wonderful opportunity to explore their individuality.
 
As a former ballerina with the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, Elena Kunikova performed Kitri’s Act III variation many times. She now coaches professionals in the role, including American Ballet Theatre’s Irina Dvorovenko, New York City Ballet’s Ana Sophia Scheller and the male divas of Les Ballets Trockadero. She recently shared her expertise on mastering some of the difficult moments.

Spanish Port de Bras
One of the variation’s biggest challenges lies in its stylized port de bras. “Character dance is not widely taught in the West,” Kunikova says, “so many young dancers don’t know how to move their arms with Spanish flair.” Dancers often place their hands on their hips by pulling their elbows back and sticking out their wrists. “I call it ‘chicken wings,’ ” says Kunikova. “Instead, the palm should be delicately placed on top of the tutu, not grabbing the hip. The wrist should be pressed down and the elbow should be pushed slightly forward (make sure to keep your chest open) while the fingers sustain an elegant classical form.” Each time the arms transition from the hips to second position (and in reverse), they must pass through first position.
 
Kunikova stresses the importance of coordinating the head with the rest of your body. For instance, she says, “It looks more impressive to look up on the développé à la seconde. Then, look lower during the passés while possibly fanning yourself. It gives more diversity and amplitude to the steps.”

Proper Fan Position
Manipulating the fan presents another challenge. “Rehearse the variation using just the port de bras, without dancing, to incorporate the fan without worrying about what’s happening from the waist down,” Kunikova says. She notes that dancers shouldn’t rest their elbow against the body when holding the fan. Initiate slower, larger fan movements with the elbow, but use the wrist to 
create quick, small flutters. For added security, dancers can attach the fan to their wrist with an elastic band.
 
The fan can help build tension and excitement through the variation, like during the échappé section. “You might keep it low in front of your chest for the first set,” says Kunikova, “then gradually add port de bras on the second and third sets to show the combination’s progression.” 



The Final Footwork
The variation’s final section—a series of alternating hops on pointe across the stage (called taqueté in French)—is its trickiest. The hopping foot must maintain a cupped shape to properly support the body. “It’s the only moment in ballet vocabulary when we have to make the foot ugly,” says Kunikova. Keep your weight on the supporting leg to control balance, using a shallow plié. Engaging opposition in the legs and shoulders is very characteristic for Spanish-styled ballet, and it accentuates the body’s position changes.

Exploring Kitri’s Character
Kunikova sees many avenues of artistic interpretation. “Kitri’s character can be quite different,” she says. “She could be proud, playful, willful or humorous.” However, dancers should avoid trying to appear sultry. “I call it the ‘Black Swan impersonation.’ Too much sultriness, especially for younger dancers, isn’t appropriate or true to their age.” Keep in mind that the variation is part of Kitri’s wedding celebration. “She should be joyous!”
 
While Kitri’s variation allows for lots of individual expression, Kunikova advises young students first learning the dance to avoid overloading it with too many details. “Instead,” she says, “keep it simple and clear.” Flourishes can be added later with experience and practice.