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Pacific Northwest Ballet - 'The Sleeping Beauty'

Awake and Alive

by Dean Speer

April 14, 15 evening, 2006 -- Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle

I would be hard pressed to find anything to suggest that might make Pacific Northwest Ballet’s glorious “Sleeping Beauty” production any more spectacular than it is already.

This is PNB’s third outing with this balletic gem – courtesy of choreographer and stager Roland Hynd and his wife Annette Page whose lineage can be traced back to the 1890 Petipa original – and it’s becoming “seasoned” with the Company. Many have danced certain roles before while others are moving up and through the ranks, being given opportunities to try their dancing wings in solo roles and smaller ensembles like the Gold and Silver Pas de Trois or the more famous Blue Bird Pas de Deux. This includes not only those of official Soloist or Principal rank but also those from the Corps.

The great Margot Fonteyn wrote in her Autobiography that “Ballets rated fear in direct ratio to the degree of absolute physical control and stamina they exacted. Thus: “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty” – terror...” She also reported elsewhere that when it came time to first learn Aurora in the late 1930s, no one had seen the ballet since 1921 and she had heard about the long balances en attitude of Act 1's Rose Adagio, and so arranged to work with one of her favorite teachers, Vera Volkova who gave her some specific exercises to prepare for this.

No terror came across from any of the casts I saw. Having seen the duo of Noelani Pantastico and Jeffrey Stanton dance in 2003, I knew in advance that Pantastico would give us youthful joy as Aurora and Stanton would be clean and clear as Florimund as well as ardent and attentive in his partnering. What’s new on the table for 2006 was an increased sense of assurance from Pantastico, who nailed her Rose Adagio balances, not even bothering with the fourth Duke’s hand but opening up to first arabesque after a long and languid balance from taking the hand of Duke number three. Very exciting and thrilling indeed.

Leading Saturday night’s cast were Patricia Barker and Stanko Milov, both of whom gave us an impressive reading. New to Barker’s interpretation – at least it seemed to me – was the radiance of the open smile on her face and she greeted each guest and friend at her courtship ball of Act 1. One of Barker’s specialities is speed and when we got to Aurora’s manège of quick, turning dévelopées and later with coupé jetés, she really showed us the steely stuff she’s made of. Barker was all elegance and ‘beautiful line’ during the Rose Adagio but did not attempt to give us long, long balances, although she did give us one longer balance at the end where she lets go after the last promenade en attitude, as she stretches into arabesque.

Milov was in fine fettle as the prince. Admirably, he pushed himself to a more bravura level for his solo turns, particularly in the Grand Pas de Deux of Act III, but sadly hit a slippery spot – it was clear his foot slid – as he was firing up sequential double tours en l’air and while he didn’t topple – fortunately – I think this unnerved him, taking him awhile to recover.

Maria Chapman was amazingly haughty and nearly evil as the manipulative Countess in Act II. Quite good to see her acting range, as this is out of character for someone who has a reputation of being nice, personable and friendly off-stage. Her Countess was quite believable – a first among court equals but recognizing power and knowing her place – or appearing to be acquiescent as she needed to be in the presence of His Highness.

And growth occurs during a run too. This was true for Mara Vinson and Le Yin as the Blue Bird and his Princess. They were good Friday night and by the time they got to it 24 hours later were giving even more punch and power to each step.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say how much all of us will miss the on- and off-stage presence of Flemming Halby, who retires from the PNB faculty in June. His characterizations have been nuggets of dance-acting wisdom in such parts as Drosselmeyer or the Maitre’ D in “Merry Widow” or, as in this case, the prince’s slightly dotty and daft tutor, Gallison. Halby knows how to make the most of each moment and always in keeping with the character of each part.

Speaking of giving opportunities, corps member Stacy Lowenberg gave a solid performance as Lilac Fairy at the Friday show, well navigating her way through the tricky piqué/relevé fouetté sequence in the solo, and Lilac veteran Ariana Lallone was both commanding and magically powerful as she dispelled the effects of Carabosse’s hex.

One of Hynd’s own constructions is the Ashtonian-like Gold and Silver Pas de Trois. It’s a lovely gem that could easily stand out by itself. Friday’s grouping was Carrie Imler, Christophe Maraval, and Lucien Postlewaite with Saturday’s comprising Postlewaite with Carla Körbes and Anton Pankevitch. Hynd assigns each plenty to do in interesting combinations. Lots of jumps and turns for the men, including a variation on cabriole that has the back leg brushing up to the front, legs beating like a cabriole but landing on the leg that did the initial brush rather than on the one that came up to meet it. Newcomer Pankevitch has the technique for this and only needs to match the timing of his partners, which will happen as he acclimates. In musician’s terms, PNB dancers are always moving forward and don’t “sit” on the beat and Pankevitch was sometimes ever so slightly behind musically. This musical approach also has the distinct advantage of allowing the dancers an additional option to their phrasing.

Körbes is enjoying a good season. She looks great in every part she’s been assigned. As both the Fairy of Beauty and in the Pas de Trois, it was fun seeing what she’d do with the enchaînements. She uses her legs like no one else in the Company – this is a good thing – and seems comfortable with every dance part I’ve seen her in thus far. We look forward to many more.

Since I’ve brought up the wicked fairy, we must mention the two Carabosses that we enjoyed. Former PNB soloist Timothy Lynch was all glances and nasty fun. Yet principal dancer Olivier Wevers, one night the Prince, and a couple of nights later, an over-the-top, maniacal, “revenge R us” witch gave us a characterization that was totally fun.

During the closing tutti Mazurka, Hynd gives the celebrating courtiers the traditional mazurka step(s) and I was most pleased to see that he’s also inserted in a variation of cabriole. These are where the arms swing across as you make what mechanically and effectively is a cabriole to the side, but one big difference is that you are supposed to stay at the same level – glide – and not arch up as in an actual one and travel. (Instructors always admonished us to “keep our heads level with the floor.”) It’s a fun step and one that I’ve reported to my sometimes ballet students when giving them the occasional character dance step that it’s really done in actual ballets, so it was nice seeing this declaration certified.

Also superb was his interpolation of the Prologue’s dance by the Attendants of the Lilac Fairy, which was a lesson in tight ensemble performance – they all held the last passé relevé exactly for the same length of time – by Jessika Anspach, Kari Brunson, Andrea Cooper, Lindsi Dec, Rachel Foster, Leanne Larsen, Brittany Petersen, and Elyse Postlewaite. We delighted in the Petipa-isms of the steps: jumping emboîte devant en attitude; piqué retiré de côté; sharp pass pieds; arms at waists in groupings; incorporated into many patterns and formations. Great fun.

The score is one of Tchaikovsky’s best. I’d rank “Swan Lake” at the top, followed by this one, and as charming as it is, “Nutcracker” coming in third. I was delighted with conductor Stewart Kershaw’s studio rehearsal comment of how the overture, which starts out very dramatically, is Carabosse planning out her revenge for not being invited to Aurora’s christening. “Hah, Hah. Ha-ha-ha-ha...” Cackling music as it were. And four acts of some of the loveliest music on this planet.

The costumes themselves are virtually worth the price of admission – colorful, rich fabrics which look custom-made. It’s also interesting to note that the designer built in the differences between the period look of when Aurora and crew go to sleep and the period of 100 years later.

PNB’s “Sleeping Beauty” is awake and alive – vibrant with colorful dancing, soaring music, and one swell night at the ballet.

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