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American Ballet Theatre

'Sleeping Beauty'

by Cecly Placenti

June 8, 2007 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Sleeping Beauty wakes again, for the first time at American Ballet Theatre in 10 years. She has been sleeping and waking in different assemblages around the globe for over two centuries. Poor Sleeping Beauty. How does she manage to look fresh each time?

Well, for this go-round at ABT, Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie invited the legendary ballerina Gelsey Kirkland to assist in restaging and coaching. The role of Aurora was one of Kirkland’s signature triumphs in her dancing days and the last role she performed with the Royal Ballet. Along with her husband (and former dancer) Michael Chernov, the trio studied elements of previous stagings, from Nureyev’s version for the National Ballet of Canada, to the Paris Opera Ballet, to the Kirov’s four hour historically accurate reconstruction, and created something new.

As soon as the curtain rose on The Christening scene, the audience was assaulted with bright and lively over-the-top beauty – like we were transported to Disney World. The costumes by Willa Kim were exploding with rich color – orange, blue, yellow, with sparkly jewels attached to everything. The sets by Tony Walton were equal in their opulence and vibrancy and together with the costumes made a striking setting for dancing that matched their intensity. The six fairy soloists brought no actual gifts to the infant Aurora, aside from the gifts of their compelling dancing – and they were gifts enough. Zhong-Jing Fang as The Fairy of Joy buzzed like a firefly – her energy was contagious and I thought for a moment she would combust in a ball of fire, her movements so fast, sharp and full of heart, soul and delight. Misty Copeland as The Fairy of Valor was calm, gracious and confident.

Perhaps the biggest change was borrowed from the adaptation of the original story written by Charles Perrot. In both his and ABT’s version, the Lilac Fairy excludes the king and queen from the slumbering castle and therefore suggests their exclusion from punishment and redemption. However, one could argue that suffering through a life without your child is more severe punishment than blissful sleep. Perhaps to make sense of this plot twist, the triumvirate concocted the idea that the queen would cry a river whose water prompts Prince Desire to dream of her daughter. In the grand scheme of things, this did not matter. I applaud the idea of tweaking details while still maintaining the integrity of the whole ballet.

No matter how historically correct the story, the real power of “Sleeping Beauty” hinges on the believability of its Aurora. Not only must the technique of the dancer be steadfast and theatrical – there is much mime employed – but the dancer must be able to capture and transmit abstract ideas such as the gifts of valor, sincerity, charity, and joy given to her by the fairies. She must show in the quality of her movement and emotions the many phases of a woman’s life.

Irina Dvorovenko was a beautiful Aurora, her first entrance down the curving staircase to the stage for her 16th birthday celebration was full of giddy teenage excitement. As she met her suitors for the first time, we saw her shyness and slight discomfort, yet also her willingness to obey her parents. The balances during the Rose Adagio, that seem to go on forever, are a test of any ballerina’s strength. Dvorovenko wobbled a bit in the middle, seeming to have a death grip on the hand of her suitor and fumbling to let go, and the audience gasped in anxiety. Of course she recovered, she is a star, and to me that tiny misstep is forgettable. It is the excitement of live theater, where things often don’t go exactly right. I want to see real people up on stage, even in a fairy tale, and a ballerina’s mettle is proven in how she handles mistakes.

Dvorovenko did not let us see her sweat. She recovered in an instant and didn’t skip a beat in conveying the girlish impetuousness of the princess. In the Vision Scene we see her pain, longing, torment. When she wakes to the kiss of her prince, she is a full grown woman, her movements softer, more expansive and regal. Maxim Beloserkovsky as Prince Desire was gracious, his clean, effortless line and expansive dancing fit for a prince. In the Wedding Celebration, Beloserkovsky and Dvorovenko dance together with pure abandon. She throws herself into his steadfast arms and their partnering is confident and comfortable – they know and trust each other’s bodies fully.

The most special treat of the evening came in the role of Carabosse. Gelsey Kirkland returned to the stage for the first time since her retirement in the late 1980’s to bring her usual intensity and flare to the role of the evil fairy. Kirkland, one of the greatest ballerina’s of all time, has so much fire, so much conviction and passion – the roles she danced consumed her and every gesture she made was alive with feeling and character. Every move she made, from technically dazzling to a simple turn of the hand, meant something. She is magnificent. To the role of Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty, she brought the same determination and zeal her fans have come to expect. Not a dancing role, Gelsey embodied every gesture with electricity. Her body was charged and exploding. Her face was barely conrolled contempt and rage. And judging by the hoots and hollers she got at curtain call, the audience was thrilled to see her on stage again.

It was appropriate that Kirkland should return to NYC and ABT to help re-awaken Sleeping Beauty, and on the heels of a successful re-staging, let us hope that that we see more of this collaboration in the future. A bit of the past mixed with a dose of the present can only yield a future rooted in history and free to soar.

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