Visitors walking into the Diego Rivera gallery at the Instituto Cultural de México at Hemisfair Park find themselves in Mundos Posibles | Possible Worlds, the current exhibit of contemporary photography by young Mexican artists who have enhanced their work with fictional or surreal twists.

If you’re able to shift your focus from the visually stunning pieces on the walls, you may also perceive additional, more subtle sensory cues: you may feel a gentle vibration in the floor, and hear rhythmic tapping noises and the sounds of classical piano music.

Traverse the art space and walk down a narrow hallway, and you’ll find yourself in a smaller room filled with another art form, equally as stunning as the images on the Instituto’s walls, but marked by dynamic movement and artistic interaction. The room is filled with more than two dozen slender yet tremendously powerful bodies pirouetting, leaping, and oftentimes seemingly floating through the air.

Sally Turkel and Daniel Westfield rehearse in a back room at the Instituto Cultural de México.
Principal dancer Sally Turkel and Daniel Westfield rehearse in a back room at the Instituto Cultural de México. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

You’re in the practice space of Ballet San Antonio, the more than 30-person troupe of dancers currently preparing for their rendition of Don Quixote. Come Friday night, the dancers will spend the bulk of their weekend at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, where endless hours of rehearsals and rigorous training will come into fruition for the company’s season premiere.

For tickets to the performance, click here.

Miguel de Cervantes’ novel is considered by many to be the most seminal piece of the Spanish literary canon. The two-piece, close-to-1,000-page novel tells the tale of Spanish nobleman Alonso Quixano, who sets out to revive chivalry with the help of his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza.

The iconic saga of two men embarking on adventures – indubitably, with no shortage of women and madness woven into the storyline – has provided ample material for artistic adaptations like Cyrano de Bergerac or The Three Musketeers. Those who’ve read Cervantes’ tome might rightfully wonder how one would translate it into a modern-day ballet.

“The ballet version of Don Quixote isn’t actually about (his) journey,” said Sally Turkel, principal dancer of Ballet San Antonio. “If you look at classical ballet that was developed around the same time as Don Quixote, it’s all based on a central couple that’s either in love or trying to get married. I think that’s something that very much goes with the era of when it was first created. It’s entertaining to watch – young love is always an audience favorite.”

Both the first ballet versions of Don Q – as the dancers refer to their current endeavor as – and Ballet SA’s interpretation set the opening scene in the village where Kitri and Basilio live. The two are young lovers desperately trying to convince Kitri’s father to let them get married.

Sally Turkel, playing the role of Kitri, pretends to flirt with Basilio, her new partner Michael Agudelo.
Sally Turkel, playing the role of Kitri, pretends to flirt with Basilio, her new partner Michael Agudelo. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

The ballet connects to Cervantes’ novel by dedicating an act to Quixano’s infatuation with the beautiful Dulcinea, a woman he met on one of his journeys. Quixano is reminded of Dulcinea when he encounters Kitri, played by Turkel, when he passes through her village. What follows is a dream sequence, or what Turkel refers to as “the most classical ballet part of the show, where all the women (are) in tutus.

“Don Q is kind of a crazy, older man, (who) has all these visions of grandeur,” Turkel explained. “All the travels and adventures that he’s been on have affected him so he ends up falling asleep on the stage and then the ballet transforms into (his) dream.”

The ballet adaptations of Don Q take ample creative liberty in straying from the original novel: the emphasis is less on the chivalry and knighthood of Don Q and more on romance and young love. The sylph-like elegance with which Turkel moves her delicate frame in her dance sequences aligns more with the latter, and though you probably wouldn’t liken Turkel to a knight, she certainly has the heart of a warrior.

At the young age of 3, Turkel watched her sister take ballet classes, and then begged her mother to allow her to start what would eventually become a successful professional dancing career.

“I always knew this is my life, this is what I want to be, and I did everything to make it happen,” Turkel said about her beginnings in North Carolina. Childhood creative movement classes turned into more serious classes at the age of 8, then into ballet boarding school at age 14, and eventually into a series of employments with companies across the United States, most notably Colorado Ballet in Denver. She joined Ballet San Antonio in 2013 and was promoted to principal dancer the following season.

Sally Turkel re-centers while she waits for her entrance.
Principal dancer Sally Turkel re-centers while she waits for her entrance.

Ballet dancers’ jobs are to make the tremendous feats their bodies are set to accomplish look easy when they’re anything but. A “simple” passé pirouette would have most of us disoriented or horizontal in no time. Turkel, on the other hand, does a triple with ease, then segues into a series of fouettés, a smile on her face throughout the minute-and-a-half of uninterrupted spinning on the box of her pointe shoes.

In Don Q, she spends nearly the entire show under the lights of the stage. The poise and presence she displays – while exhilarating and rewarding – is draining.

“(It’s) at least an hour and a half or two hours that we’re actually on stage,” Turkel explained. Even though she’s not dancing the entire time, “it’s a lot of energy. You have to be focused, you’re still performing.”

But she makes it look easy, because that’s what practicing five days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. with mere five-minute breaks on the hour and a half-hour lunch break prepared her for.

“My goal is to stay busy. It’s those days where you don’t have any rehearsal and you’re just hanging out (where) your body starts to get more fatigued just from standing,” Turkel said. “It’s this weird thing where … I have so much more energy when I do a lot of dancing. It makes no sense but (I’m) more engaged when I move.”

The first production in the 2016-17 season, Don Quixote comes after a three month summer break during which all Ballet SA members are left to their own devices to maintain their technique, stamina, and level of fitness.

“It’s about a three-month ‘layover.’ That’s typical for a ballet company,” Turkel said. “(It’s) nice because you can travel or if you have an injury, you can rehab. I always use that time to cross-train and do other things, enjoy life in a different way.

“It’s all about finding balance and doing what makes you feel good,” she continued. “It’s just like with every other job.”

With the many costume and hair piece changes, Sally Turkel has to make sure her hair stays in place.
With the many costume and hair piece changes, Sally Turkel has to make sure her hair stays in place. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Arguably, ballet dancing is far from your average job. Anyone who has participated in professional sports knows how much effort, dedication, and sacrifice goes into being the best in your discipline. Ballet, though not a competitive sport, requires fine-tuned athletic finesse comparable to that in gymnastics or figure skating; add on elements of acting, artistic expression, musicality, and partner work in the case of a pas de deux.

It comes as no surprise that Turkel spends more time in pointe shoes in a studio than in high heels out on the town.

While the Rivard Report spoke with her during her lunch break, she ate an apple and a handful of almonds and talked about some of the sacrifices involved in being a dancer.

“Leaving my home (at a young age) was hard for me and my family,” she said. “On top of that … when I started doing The Nutcracker professionally, I couldn’t go home for Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday, so it’s not quite the same.”

When asked about ballet’s strain on her body, she simply said, “We all have little aches and pains – they’re always there.

“But for me … ballet and dance is number one. When it’s your passion, you want to do everything you can to succeed, but I think it’s important to have balance and to be with friends outside of the ballet.”

Turkel added that she uses her experiences outside the ballet world to gather inspiration, which she then integrates into her performances. Her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree is one such example, time spent with her boyfriend another.

“He’s a normal person,” she said, and then laughed at her own statement. “I mean, he’s not a dancer. He’ll comment on things that aren’t about dancing. Normal audience members (don’t) care that your foot’s not as turned out as it’s supposed to be – sometimes it can be good to hear that.”

Some of the 15 hand-picked local schoolchildren watch as Sally Turkel performs.
Some of the 15 hand-picked local schoolchildren watch as principal dancer Sally Turkel performs. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Turkel’s commitment to finding balance – on and off the stage – is unwavering. Friday night, the principal dancer, her Ballet SA colleagues, and approximately 15 hand-picked local schoolchildren will fill the stage in the Tobin’s H-E-B Performance Hall with vibrant colors, elaborate costumes, classical music, and those inescapable tapping sounds and vibrations of the craft’s signature pointe shoes.

Turkel will demonstrate her flexibility in more than one way when she performs some of the same dance sequences prima ballerinas such as Marianela Nuñez, Cynthia Harvey, and Natalia Makarova have lent their interpretation to in the past.

Sally Turkel leaps into the air with her new partner Michael Agudelo. Her original partner Daniel Westfield broke his foot the Friday before the show.
Sally Turkel leaps into the air with her new partner Michael Agudelo. Her original partner Daniel Westfield broke his foot the Friday before the show. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

A mere week before the premiere, her dance partner Daniel Westfield broke his foot, forcing Turkel to put in countless hours on her days off to adapt to her new partner, Michael Agudelo, in record time. Despite the setback, she remains optimistic.

“He has really stepped up, we had an emergency rehearsal on our day off and worked out the kinks,” she said. “It isn’t easy being thrown into a role last minute, especially a principal role where you have to carry the story.”

Nonetheless, she’ll make it look easy, because that’s what she does. That’s what she was born to do.

Ballet San Antonio’s Don Quixote will premier at the Tobin Center Friday, Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m., followed by performances Saturday, Oct. 15 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 16 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available here.

Before moving to San Antonio in 2004, Hanna was a competitive rhythmic gymnast in her native Austria. She earned degrees from St. Mary’s University and the Texas State Graduate College before joining...