Chivalry might be a dirty word these days, but “Don Quixote” lives on.
The 400-year-old novel by Cervantes has been dissected, debated and made into a musical. And this weekend, Richmond Ballet will dance it. Whether the errant knight is a madman or a courageous soldier battling on the side of justice, one thing is certain: As far as chivalry goes, classical ballet is on Don Quixote’s side.
“Ballet as a whole is an act of chivalry,” says Phillip Skaggs, a company dancer at Richmond Ballet. “There’s a code that goes along with conducting yourself as a partner and how you treat each other as male and female.”
Chivalry exists in the bones of classical ballet, which came from the Renaissance court cultures of Italy and France. It stands to reason that the code for male ballet dancers that Skaggs cites is remarkably similar to the code found in the romantic novels that warped Don Quixote’s mind.
Twenty years ago, famed dancer Paul Sutherland gave Skaggs a piece of paper titled, “The Basic Principals of Good Partnering.” The paper looks its age — it’s full of holes from tacks, pinned above ballet master Malcolm Burn’s desk.
“The role of the male dancer is to be a platform on which [the ballerina] can use her strength,” Skaggs says. “Every bit of physicality that I’m putting into it is so that she looks feminine, graceful and powerful. I’m like a physical pedestal for her to jump off of.”
Principal dancer Lauren Fagone has worked with Skaggs often in the 13 years she’s been with Richmond Ballet. When Fagone dances, she likes to challenge her limits physically and emotionally. Her partnership with Skaggs gives her the trust necessary to approach her roles with the abandon and drama for which she’s known.
“I know Phil as a person,” Fagone says. “He knows me as a person. He has seen me in glorious moments. He has seen me broken. He has loved me regardless of what goes on. He has respected me. He has protected my heart, my person and my artistry.”
Onstage, Fagone and Skaggs look like the flame-haired damsel and rapt knight of the Sir Frank Dicksee painting, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” minus the black steed. In person, they aren’t much different. When they glance at each other, a wordless vocabulary flashes between them.
“It’s not acting when we dance together,” Fagone says.
“I fall in love with everyone I dance with,” Skaggs says. “I fall in love on stage all the time. It’s a cool thing. It’s great that I have a wife who’s a ballet dancer, and she understands that.”
It’s not all locked eyes and love. Sometimes a ballerina ends up on the floor. When she does, the male dancer should be under her. The code states that whenever something goes wrong, it’s the male dancer’s fault.
“It’s like the military,” Skaggs says. “In the military you never drop your gun. Your gun doesn’t hit the ground. Same thing with partnering. If things do go wrong, you better be on the ground so she falls on you.”
The lifts that look so effortless are feats of strength and timing. Elbows fly, bodies collide. “I’ve taken hits to the face and chin, to other parts of the body — a knee to the groin,” Skaggs says.
“I’ve hit your nose a bunch of times” Fagone adds.
“Yeah, its like a rubber nose,” he says, laughing, wiggling it like a loose tooth.
Skaggs jokes that he owns the playbook to all the female dancers. He knows who needs to be alone before a performance, who needs a neck massage and who does best with a quiet voice because she’s about to explode. Reading his partner’s cues is part of his job.
“We’re raw in front of each other all day,” Skaggs says of the bond that forms between partners. “We’re standing in front of a mirror; we’re being judged by our ballet masters and ballet mistresses. We’re biting into material that sometimes is raw and can make you cry.”
After six full days a week of rehearsing for months on end, dancers perform for an hour or two a handful of times a year. The lost world of chivalry finds a place onstage. And it lingers offstage.
“Even when Phil and I are 85 and don’t live in the same city and have plastic hips and are using walkers, we’ll remember our duets,” Fagone says. “Those are moments forever burned in my memory. You can’t recreate that experience outside this environment. You don’t find people who are willing to be vulnerable and who are willing to strip layers of themselves away so they can connect on the level that we need to here.” S
“Don Quixote,” featuring guest artists Wang Ye and Ma Xiadong from National Ballet of China, runs at the Carpenter Theater from Feb. 20-22. Tickets are available at eTix.com or by calling 800-514-3849.