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American Ballet Theatre

'Sleeping Beauty'

by Jerry Hochman

June 4, 5, 6 (evening) and 9, 2007 -- Metropolitan Opera House, NYC

American Ballet Theatre’s new production of “The Sleeping Beauty” continues to impress as it approaches its last performance Saturday evening. This is not a production that simply recreates the original with new sets and costumes, nor is it a “modern” version that might provide entirely new choreography and a re-imagined setting for the usual characters. Although some modifications still should be made, the production is a worthy attempt to restage the ballet so that its pace and tone have a more modern feel, while still maintaining both the classic framework and the classic Petipa choreography.

The June 4 performance, with two major exceptions (including Gelsey Kirkland’s debut as Carabosse), essentially had the same cast as did the premiere. But already, after only a few more performances, the production is more cohesive, and the dancers – particularly Veronika Part – have relaxed and begun to enjoy themselves. Less obviously preoccupied with successfully executing the steps, Part did what the choreography told her to do, but she also danced with more confidence and acted more like a princess. She is an unusual ballerina – looking at times like a porcelain doll perched on legs that never end. This stretched appearance lends an air of surprising delicacy to her movement quality, which is rare in a ballerina who is taller (or appears taller) than the average. In addition to the clarity of her movement, she is a superb jumper who demonstrated, during Act II, grand jetes that not only soared, but floated – and then flew even higher, bringing gasps of delight from the audience.

Gillian Murphy was Tuesday’s Aurora (substituting for the injured Julie Kent). While Part was beginning to relax in the role, Murphy looked like she’d been rehearsing the role since she was old enough to leave the crib (and she probably stood en pointe for a few minutes when she did). She even looked like a Princess Aurora. Murphy found her center the way normal people find a way to open their eyelids in the morning: instinctively and effortlessly. A natural balancer and turner, her performance, and particularly her superb Rose Adagio, was exactly what anyone who has previously seen Murphy dance would have expected it to be. [For Murphy, a greater challenge may be Juliet, which doesn’t rely as much on balances and turns. She is scheduled to dance Juliet in a few weeks.]

Paloma Herrera danced Aurora at the June 9 performance, and won over most of the house that remained following the announcement that she was subbing for Diana Vishneva, who was too ill to perform. Herrera is a puzzlement. Her dancing was nothing less than superb. Her execution was virtually flawless. But, to me, there was something missing. As good a performance as she gave, she failed to convince me that she was a 16 year-old. Her expression throughout was too dour, too monochromatic. It wasn't as if she was anticipating the steps - she was considerably beyond that. But, to me, she never became Aurora until she let go in Act III.

Not surprisingly, the one Aurora who provided the entire package was Diana Vishneva at the June 6 performance. It simply is unfair to other ballerinas to have Vishneva dance the same roles they do. While the quality of her dancing is a given, she is an accomplished actress who can make the audience believe that she’s inhabiting the role, not just performing it. As has been observed by this writer (and others) previously, it is a privilege to watch Vishneva dance. This is not to say that the performance was perfect – in Act II, during the dream scene, she seemed to stumble ever so slightly (it was the shoe; it had to be the shoe). For the rest of Act II she was less than 100% perfect. Maybe 99%. But she recovered for Act III.

Vishneva’s prince was David Hallberg. He far exceeded my expectations, both as her partner and in his own role. He was the most youthful and most joyful of the three I saw who assayed the role of the Prince. His often wooden expression of determined concentration was gone, replaced by an animated appearance that I haven’t previously seen. As always, Angel Corella was exciting to watch as the Prince, but wasn't able to move with the same conviction in the "dream" scene as did Gomes. Ethan Stiefel’s prince showed more maturity than Hallberg’s, but was equally accomplished. And, to the surprise of no one in the knowledgeable audience, his partnering of Murphy was flawless. But Marcelo Gomes’s reprise of the role on June 4 remains the most memorable.

Stella Abrera, was the Lilac Fairy at the Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evening performance, and Michele Wiles repeated the role on Tuesday. Wiles’s performance was much improved over her debut. In this performance, she was open, warm, gracious, and glittery. In short, her Lilac Fairy was wonderful. Abrera is a beautiful dancer, but at times she seems to dance with her head more than her heart. Her Lilac Fairy would benefit from more emotion.

Kirkland’s Carabosse was more focused evil than was Martine van Hamel’s debut in the role. She was as much a hissing snake as an insect/spider, and her every gesture was exaggerated and nuanced for effect. Even her make-up looked vicious. Not one movement was superfluous or out of place. And for an insect the (relative) size of a mosquito, she was able to convey surprising power. That having been said, however, she is so tiny that the image of an imposing witch/fairy doesn’t seem quite there. But for Carabosse’s spidery minions, the Lilac Fairy could simply have swatted her away.

Tuesday’s and Saturday's Bluebird and Princess Florine were Carlos Lopez and Sarah Lane. Lopez performed adequately and energetically, but lost power as the pas de deux approached its end. And his Saturday performance had little pizazz. Lane, as has been observed previously, has a special delicacy about her dancing. Xiomara Reyes, who danced the role in other performances I saw, was a flashy Florine who seemed to try to keep pace with her Bluebird, Herman Cornejo. I preferred Lane’s simple purity. And on Saturday, she demonstrated that her talent is not just in looking good - she maintained extended balances that were as thrilling as they were unexpected.

Craig Salstein’s Catalabutte at the June 5 and 6 performances was a tour de force. His was the kind of polished performance that one would expect of highly experienced character dancers, not from a dancer whose experience to date in such roles has been limited. Also notable were Hee Seo as The Fairy of Serenity, Lane and Renata Pamam (on Saturday) as The Fairy of Joy, Jennifer Alexander as The Countess, and Maria Bystrova as the Queen at Tuesday’s performance. Alexander’s finely nuanced portrayal and gentleness of demeanor made one wonder how the Prince could possibly have been so miserable. And Seo, who looks like she could be a super dancer, breathed life into what had previously appeared to be a relatively dull variation.

The Garland Waltz includes two sets of student dancers who are marvelous: Skylar Brandt and David Alvarez, and Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Drew Nelson.

Lastly, some brief additional observations about the production.

My initial impression of the beginning of the “hunt scene” in Act II (following the Prince’s exhilarating first appearance) was that too much time was spent on the Prince’s unhappiness, and that some parts of that portion of the scene could be condensed. Seeing Gomes perform the role again, however, made me reconsider. His portrayal is so good, so nuanced, that I don’t know what I’d want to cut. The scene flows effortlessly from the Prince’s melancholy (with the lighting altered to reflect the Prince’s mood), to his dream, to his decision not to join his friends for the hunt, to his vision.

The journey scene always seems too long (in my mind’s eye I see Fernando Bujones in the initial incarnation of the previous ABT production traversing an overgrown forest for what seemed like the full hundred years that the princess slept). In this production, to help break up the journey, a new and expanded confrontation scene between the Prince, Carabosse, and the Lilac Fairy is added in which Carabosse (playing on the insect-spider image that has been created for her) spins a web in which Prince Desire is trapped, until the Lilac Fairy rescues him and Carabosse is left dangling. The scene doesn’t always work (and, if nothing else, the timing needs to be improved), but it is interesting, and different, and keeps the audience from napping.

But there are several changes that might be made to make this production even better than it now is.

Granted, the Prologue takes place indoors, and that the expansive setting of other scenes might be inappropriate, nevertheless the stage in this scene is much busier than it needs to be. If many of the attendants to the court could be moved offstage after their initial entry, that might eliminate some of the problem.

Also, initially, the Garland Waltz appeared stunningly done. But it looks very different from the Orchestra than it did from the Dress Circle, where I was at its premiere. From the orchestra, the clarity and precision of the patterns is missing (from above, at one point the garlands form the pattern of a moving flower -- this image is lost from the orchestra view), and the overall impression is too crowded (it's difficult to see the foreign princes parading through the garlands). The Waltz is so well done, it is unfortunate that the audience in the orchestra can't see it. Perhaps something can be done to open it up a bit.

And the ensemble dancing at the beginning of Act III seems repetitive and unnecessary. Condensing it would do no harm to the conception of the scene, and would speed things along. And in this production Princess Florine is carried onstage inside a birdcage, and is then released by the Bluebird. Shouldn't it be the other way around?

Finally, and notwithstanding my previous praise of the sets, I noticed that the one of the curtains forming the forest barrier during the journey scene has skeletons trapped in it, almost hidden among the skeletons of dead leaves. It makes the scene look like something out of Indiana Jones. Worse, it conveys the impression that there may have been other “Prince Charmings” who tried to make it through the forest, only to be eliminated by Carabosse before they could plant a kiss on the princess. Since everyone knows there’s only one true Prince for the Princess, this couldn’t be right. So what are these bones doing there? I suggest they be removed before a generation of young ballet goers think that the Lilac Fairy might have lost three or four rounds before finally getting the better of Carabosse.

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