Hunter-raised ballet dancer's star turn as Don Quixote

Gamache (centre) is Matthew Donnelly’s first comic lead in 12 years with the Australian Ballet.
Gamache (centre) is Matthew Donnelly’s first comic lead in 12 years with the Australian Ballet.

While other dancers in Don Quixote are limbering up for their roles pre-show, Hunter-raised Australian Ballet principal Matthew Donnelly is practising absurd expressions in front of a mirror and doing silly walks.

He has the comic role of Gamache, a foppish Spanish nobleman who is wooing the daughter of an innkeeper in a Spanish seaside town in the ballet drawn from the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

Donnelly’s attire is so extravagant that Newcastle friends could find him unrecognisable when he makes his appearance in the Australian Ballet’s Dancers Company production at the Civic Theatre on August 9.

He wears a broad-brimmed hat with extravagant orange decoration over a red-haired wig with long curled locks, and a suit and cloak that would have eccentrically attired singers such as Lady Gaga green with envy.

The hat, he said, is so wide that he spent a lot of time in rehearsals practising his movement through a narrow doorway.

Gamache is Donnelly’s first comic lead in 12 years as a dancer with the Australian Ballet, including a promotion to soloist in 2005.

It involves greater use of acting techniques than his previous principal roles, but critical and audience reactions to his performance have made it clear that he has succeeded in making Gamache a figure of fun.

The role does have its downside, he said with a laugh.

“When I turned up at the reception after the show’s first night, no one recognised me without my costume and make-up.”

Donnelly is one of five Australian Ballet guest artists appearing in Don Quixote, which is the touring production for 26 students graduating from the Australian Ballet School this year.

The role of the title character, an eccentric Spanish grandee who visits the seaside town while searching for the woman of his dreams, Lady Dulcinea, is played by Simon Dow, a former artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet in the United States and the West Australian Ballet.

Don Quixote is touring to 12 cities and towns in Tasmania, Victoria, NSW and the ACT.

While the ballet shows some of the adventures of Don Quixote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, the focus is on the romantic tribulations of Kiri, the spirited daughter of an innkeeper, and a dashing young barber, Basilio.

Kiri has caught the eye of Gamache, and her father, Lorenzo, decrees that she will marry the nobleman. Don Quixote becomes involved in the affairs of Kiri and Basilio when he sees the young woman dance in the town square and imagines her as his Dulcinea, subsequently trying to woo her.

The Don later is at the same gypsy camp at night where Kiri and Basilio are told by a fortune-teller that they will wed.

Gamache, though, continues to be a threat to their bliss.

Donnelly has previously appeared in three productions of Don Quixote as an ensemble member: in Denmark in a production choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev and in two Australian Ballet productions. The Dancers Company production has choreography by Russian-trained dancer Ai-Gul Gaisina.

Donnelly began dance classes at age five with Marie Walton-Mahon in Newcastle because his sister was learning to dance and he thought he’d like to try it as well.

The Medowie-raised lad continued at the Walton-Mahon school until he was accepted at age 15 into the Australian Ballet School.

He graduated with honours in 1996 and was invited to join the Royal Danish Ballet where he worked with some of the world’s leading choreographers, including Maurice Bejart, who created a role for him in Gaiete Parisienne.

Donnelly joined the Australian Ballet in 1999. His roles have included Dr Coppelius in Coppelia, Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. He has won several medals in international dancing competitions.

As well as his dancing prowess, he has shown skill in film editing and has edited clips for the Australian Ballet’s website and for use in performances.

“I’ve always had an interest in that sort of stuff,” he said. “I got into it when someone was looking for a person to put some film clips together. And I like editing dance films.”