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Kirov Ballet - 'The Sleeping Beauty'

by Toba Singer

October 15, 2005 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California

What if the Lilac Fairy had said to the press, “The ballet 'The Sleeping Beauty’ is not dead. It is merely asleep”? What critic or audience member would then propose that the plot of this story ballet is thin and sleep inducing? The real story, in the Kirov lexicon, is more dialectical than you might think: When pricked by a spindle, Princess Aurora falls into a 100-year snooze, and that is the very moment when the entire production wakes up to its potential and goes for broke. 

The three hour and forty minute ballet opened with a dirge-like overture by the Orchestra of the Maryinksy Theatre. At the top of the show, it promised very little, and midway through the Prologue, for the first time in my life, I was wishing for taped music instead of live. That, too, changed after Aurora went under. 

The curtain rose on a palace gate that opened onto a tableau vivant that prepared us for the pomp and circumstance surrounding the christening of Princess Aurora, danced by the sparkling Diana Vishneva. Sets and costumes were mostly blue and gold and tended to match the chandeliers. The King, Aurora’s father, bore an uncanny resemblance to Puss and Boots, but this was not the time to indulge one’s magical thinking: Out came the corps de ballet, all in lilac, looking band-box clean, followed dialectically by their leader, the Lilac Fairy (Uliana Lopatkina). Her magnetism lifted the production values a notch or three. (It must be said that the pre-performance bottleneck on the Bay Bridge, owing to construction, was now being bested by what?—a tutu jam?—on the too-small stage at Zellerbach. The bridge construction jackhammers even found their echo in the klopping of pointe shoes, never louder on that stage than tonight—“The klops heard ‘round the Bay,” one might say. We know the size of the Zellerbach stage and about the shoes of certain companies, and should be able to set both aside, but when the two merge into one, it really does begin to eat wormholes into how the performance reads.) More dissonance attended the ballonés. The upper bodies of the dancers were exquisite. Arms described a rondure relieved ever so faintly by something heavenly. Unfortunately, the lower halves of the bodies—the legs doing the traveling—were in several instances, off-balance, causing the ballonés to pause under, rather than at the top, of their arcs, and look like throwaways, not ballonés. This reviewer careened between loving it and not. 

The rest of the fairies were fine in their roles, the Carefree Fairy having the best comic opportunity, which she used to full advantage. Lopatkina is always lifted, and so her ciseaux were picture-perfect. The lilac fairies-in-training were zesty, clean and youthful. Carabosse (Igor Petrov) arrived in a gold leaf ratmobile that picked up the motif of the palace gate, though it, too, looked a bit cramped. She was dressed, predictably, in black, looking more like Merlin than his female soul mate. The orchestra was playing the abracadabra music. Could this Carabosse be The Bad Fairy, boys and girls? Exit fairies, exit Carabosse. Aurora’s Sweet Sixteen Party was over, and lamentably, for her, it will be Sweet One Hundred and Sixteen before she is kissed. 

By Act II, the dancers, dressed like aristocrats, balancéd throughout a bosky forest, where Carabosse and her co-conspirators hid. The San Francisco Ballet students entered. The older ones successfully intertwined themselves into the cast of the Garland Dance. The Lilac Fairy arrived full of “take charge” energy and attacked. Pretty soon, the L. fairy was looking triumphant and Carabosse had defeat written all over him. In the meantime, Prince Desiré, whom Igor Zelensky rendered very much a credit to his social class, arrived looking for a sleeping beauty on whose lips to plant a kiss, but she was not asleep yet. Once he finds her, what a kiss it shall be! It will awaken not only the entire cast, but the orchestra (and the audience) as well! 

A refreshed Vishneva met her suitors and danced possibly the most anxiety free Rose Adagio in the history of Ballet. It helped that her suitors circled her, rather than stood eight paces away, while she, poised in attitude on three toes, wondered which one would redress some ancient backstage offense by biding his sweet time before taking her hand. But this version was so rapid-fire that one was tempted to think it the Reader’s Digest-underwritten Rose Adagio. 

Aurora’s variation and the slow-paced violin solo that accompanies her can be heartrending. Not this time. It was completely schmaltz-free, and perhaps that was not bad either because the violinist was punctilious. It just took a little attitude adjustment. I just wished the dancing were more fluid. It tended to be clean, but balky, and since Vishneva is capable of tremendous fluidity, one had to wonder whether this was simply an affectation of the Kirov. After all, the corps and coryphées do posé arabesque by stepping onto pointe, (klomp), jerking their backs into hyperextension so that their hips jut out, thus snapping, rather than floating their extensions. Whatever—abracadabra—the balkiness was gone! Vishneva was radiant, with hands that could launch a thousand ships, her extensions trended toward 180, even if held ever so briefly, and her manege of piqués was a whirl of spun sugar. Desiré also delivered a breathtaking manege, and clearly, they deserved to spend the rest of their lives together, going around in circles. 

The wedding featured some curious choices, but among the better ones was the Bluebird Variation, danced with great heroics by the very tall Maxim Chaschegorov, in a costume that looked a tad spare and shop-worn. The White Cat brought back Yana Selina in another comic role. 

We remember that Diaghilev’s first version was not well-received. It could be that much of this version was derivative of his and that more recent versions I have seen (San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet) reflect more of what Ninette de Valois had in mind when she revived Sleeping Beauty as “The Sleeping Princess,” with Margot Fonteyn in the Aurora role. Almost nobody else in this cast, except Zelenksy, took double tours from fifth, or any other identifiable position, and so his look was clean and very Erik Bruhn-like. By this time, the entire production had awoken to its royal “We,” as if a multitude of mirrors had suddenly dropped down from above to reflect a faceted image of the more recent versions, and the possibilities they brought to life. The orchestra took its cue from this collective revelation, and suddenly all balkiness was shaken off like a bad dream, and Vishneva’s pas de chats were as creamy as buttah.

The audience rose to its feet in approbation, while I was left wondering, “Is it an artistically sound proposition that watching a fairy tale danced for nearly four hours should makes me feel like I’ve spent that time reading War and Peace?”


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