Like the character she is to portray, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre soloist Kumiko Tsuji has a captivating smile and endearing demeanor, both of them infectious. Tsuji, who's 23 and in her fourth season with the company, and her partner, veteran soloist Kwang-Suk Choi, will play the young lovers Kitri and Basilio in an upcoming PBT performance of Don Quixote.
In a recent rehearsal, the petite and fresh-faced Tsuji lit up the studio. Yet her playful and innocent interactions with Choi belied an attacking power in her dancing, evident in sharply detailed footwork and strong high-extension leg-lifts that nearly grazed her ears with each pass during a variation.
Tsuji and Choi will dance the ballet's lead roles for the first time in an Oct. 26 student matinee. It's a big opportunity for the pair, and the first of four performances of the Spanish story-ballet classic for PBT and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra, under the baton of maestro Akira Endo.
"My understanding of the character is that she is the most beautiful and popular girl in her village," says Tsuji. "I try to capture her personality, not her nationality in my portrayal of her."
In subsequent performances, Tsuji and Choi will give way to other dancers in the lead roles: Most audiences for Don Quixote will see principal dancer Maribel Modrono and high-flying soloist Christopher Budzynski (on Friday and Sunday) or principals Erin Halloran and Christopher Rendell-Jackson (Saturday). But look for Tsuji in the role of Amore (Friday and Sunday), while Choi plays Espada in Saturday's performance.
Still, Kumiko is a rising star at PBT: She shot from apprentice to the second-highest rank of soloist in just four years, and is fast approaching that blend of experience, stage presence and technique that will propel her to the rank of principal.
And as Kitri and Basilio, Tsuji and Choi will embody, if only for one show, the true protagonists in a ballet named, a little ironically, for one of literature's great heroes.
The comedic ballet in three acts was staged by PBT artistic director Terrence Orr after both Marius Petipa's 1869 original and Alexander Gorsky's pared-down 1900 version, with music by composer Ludwig Minkus. It begins with a prologue in which Quixote and Panza set out in search of Quixote's beloved, and imaginary, maiden, Dulcinea. Act I takes place in Kitri and Basilio's Spanish village, with the pair trying to convince Kitri's father, Lorenzo, that they should wed, while Lorenzo pressures Kitri to marry the wealthy and flamboyant Gamache. It's during one of Quixote's noble quests that he and sidekick Sancho Panza happen upon the young lovers' village.
Act II finds the lovers escaping to a raucous gypsy encampment; Quixote, meanwhile, has a vision of a group of beautiful dryads (forest spirits) who dance before him with Kitri, whom he believes may be his Dulcinea. In the final act, festivity abounds as the two lovers are granted permission to marry, the village celebrates and the chivalrous Quixote and Panza set out on another journey.
The production features lavish costumes and set design by Tony award-winner Santo Loquasto, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre from a production originally mounted by Mikhail Baryshnikov. The 50-plus-member cast will include PBT's full company plus a number of student and community dancers, all of whom Orr and ballet mistress Marianna Tcherkassky have imbued with a clear sense of Kitri, Basilio and the other characters they are to portray.
"I have the dancers act in a manner one would in a play or movie only with out speaking," says Orr. "I think this is much more involving and interesting to audiences than watching traditional dance mime."
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre presents Don Quixote 8 p.m. Fri., Oct. 26; 8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 27; and 2 p.m. Sun., Oct. 28. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $20-88. 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org