In “Don Quixote” role, Atlanta Ballet dancer fulfills his quest

Like Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose visions (or delusions) spur him toward knightly quests, Sergio Masero-Olarte has pursued a dream to become a world-class dancer. It sent him on a serendipitous journey, bringing growth and discovery, but also disappointments, misunderstandings and lost opportunities.

An accomplished technician with an athletic build, the 23-year-old native of Madrid, Spain, has a cheerful demeanor, but his gaze intensifies as the conversation grows serious.

“I’m the guy who almost got something, but didn’t,” he said.

Since he was a boy, Masero-Olarte has loved “Don Quixote.” It’s the best-known of ballets that draw from his own Spanish culture. Though not the first ballet inspired by Cervantes’ novel, Marius Petipa’s 1869 production has become a definitive classic. The Atlanta Ballet performs Yuri Possokhov’s version beginning Feb. 2 for two weekends at Cobb Energy Centre.

Possokhov’s version respects Petipa’s form while streamlining the story of Basilio, the barber, and his beloved Kitri, who is unhappily betrothed to a wealthy man. Once Don Quixote enters the scene, the story of star-crossed lovers takes a comical turn, and romantic love triumphs.

Don Quixote embodies aspects of the Spanish personality, Masero-Olarte said. “They’re passionate people. Even though we know what reality is, it doesn’t hurt to imagine all the incredible things that you may want,” he said. “That makes you reach farther.”

Masero-Olarte’s passion for dance started at age 5 when his mother put him in ballet classes to strengthen his arches and prevent problems associated with flat feet. Relishing the challenge, he enjoyed ballet as much as he loved to play soccer.

At about age 9, his first year at Madrid’s Real Conservatorio Profesional de Danza Mariemma, Masero-Olarte acquired a video-recording of Mikhail Baryshnikov as Basilio in American Ballet Theatre’s “Don Quixote.” Masero-Olarte watched it over and over, deciding he wanted to dance the role one day. He realized that to dance like Baryshnikov required him to give up soccer and other things he loved.

His goal came into sight at age 16, when Masero-Olarte received a full ride scholarship to study in the School of American Ballet’s summer program. The school then offered him a tuition scholarship for the elite Winter Term — potentially opening doors to a job with a top-tier ballet company. But Masero-Olarte’s family couldn’t afford student housing costs.

He almost got something, but didn’t.

A year later, Masero-Olarte received a scholarship to study at the San Francisco Ballet School. He admired then-principal dancer Gennadi Nedvigin, now artistic director for the Atlanta Ballet, and Masero-Olarte set his sights on getting into San Francisco Ballet. He was told he’d move up to the school’s Trainee Program his second year — a necessary bridge between school and company. But he was bumped by winners of the Prix de Lausanne ballet competition, who got first dibs.

Almost got something, but didn’t.

Masero-Olarte eventually joined Ballet Memphis, where he spent three years dancing, teaching and choreographing. He wanted to dance more classical repertoire, and when he learned of Nedvigin’s move to Atlanta Ballet, with a turn toward classicism, Masero-Olarte auditioned.

Last October, Nedvigin invited Masero-Olarte to learn the role of Basilio, with the understanding that he’d have to prove that he could perform it. 

“He’s a very dynamic dancer. Good-looking guy. He’s very likable and sincere,” said Ogulcan Borova, who staged “Don Quixote” on Atlanta Ballet dancers and coached Masero-Olarte. 

“Everyone these days can go out there and do amazing jumps and turns,” said Borova. “It takes more than technique to develop star quality.”

For all the ballet’s dazzling lifts and athletic leaps, Masero-Olarte is learning that the acting carries the show.

It’s especially difficult during his solo variation near the ballet’s end. Complicated aerial turns — repeated three or more times — and extended pirouette sequences, test his stamina. He can’t pause to catch his breath because he has to stay in character. Then there’s the character’s arc, and expression through a centuries-old pantomime language that has to look natural and spontaneous.

Casting isn’t generally confirmed at Atlanta Ballet until 12 days before a production opens, Masero-Olarte said, but apparently he has met the challenges and will dance his dream role during the production run. He’s looking forward to sharing his enthusiasm with the audience, and hopes they’ll come away wanting more.

Now, he’s the guy who almost got something, then did.


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