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American Ballet Theatre

'Sleeping Beauty'

by Kathy Scott

July 17, 2007 -- Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, CA

If nothing else, American Ballet Theatre's new production of "The Sleeping Beauty" is colorful. Tony Walton created a true fairy-tale environment, with arching stone sets and scenery. Award-winning Willa Kim designed bright peasant dresses, courtiers' gowns and fairy tutus for the ballet. She fashioned the costumes in the first two acts after medieval styles, while she followed 17th century lines in the latter acts.

But it was the dancers inside the costumes that made the show. From the corps de ballet to the principals, ABT demonstrated why it's one of the premier ballet troupes in the world. Even a couple of technical glitches failed to ruin the opening on July 19, 2007, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, Calif.

For the opening night performance, Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel headed the company as Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré. Equally outstanding in their roles were former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland as the evil Fairy Carabosse, Stella Abrera as the Lilac Fairy and the five other fairies (dressed in light spring green, tangerine, turquoise, lemon and crimson). Also noteworthy was Misty Copeland as the female cat and Sascha Radetsky and Sarah Lane in the bluebird variation.

The three contributors to the choreography (artistic director Kevin McKenzie, Kirkland and Michael Chernov) retained much of Petipa's movements, although they restaged and modified it for this production. Most obvious was the reduction of the fairy-tale divertissements in the last act. Only the bluebird variation was left in its entirety.

During one part in the prologue, the five fairies held hands in a high "V," and while in relevé, dévelopé devant and then brushed their legs back into arabesque, all sur les pointes and holding hands. It was beautifully and skillfully done.

The restagers gave the corps delightful dances and posed tableaux, momentarily highlighting some individuals with short solos.  Maria Riccetto performed her solo to a moderate tempo to indicate her fairy's gift: Sincerity. The next solo, by Kristi Boone, burst into movement that was both strong and quiet. Her gift: Fervor. Melissa Thomas danced a pricking solo to pizzicato strings. While she hopped en pointe, she flicked her hands to demonstrate her bequest: Charity. An animated melody accompanied Yuriko Kajiya's solo in which she fluttered her fingers and pas de bourrée couru sur les pointes. Kajiya's smile embodied the gift she bestowed on the princess: Joy. The penultimate solo by Adrienne Schulte included fast shifts of focus and pas de chats en pointe. This fairy bequeathed valor.

Abrera's encompassing solo swept the air and gathered it to her. Her presentation of a gift was interrupted by Kirkland's dramatic entrance enhanced with a fiery rocket and smoke. Her four minions, outfitted in black, red and yellow-streaked beetle costumes, accompanied her into the castle, where the fairy knights confronted them. Both teams of men leaped high in sautés and grand jetés en tournant around each other.

Kirkland's sweeping gown of peacock blue and iridescent green splotches on dark grey contrasted sharply with the short tutus of the other fairies. Her skill in miming shown when she made fun of the fairies pleading not to kill the princess and her dismissal of the king (Victor Barbee) and queen's (Maria Bystrova) entreaty to spare their daughter.

In the first act, Murphy, as Aurora, entered with lots of energy and a smile, but during the adagio, her expression seemed pained. It was almost like she was recreating the White Swan in emotions instead of a young girl being courted by four princes. She did glance and smile at each suitor during the Rose adagio but focused on her technique. During an en avant passage, Murphy pirouetted three times, displaying her great skill. But I got no sense of a coquette thrilled to have four men seek her hand.

Murphy effectively pouted when her parents tried to snatch the outlawed spindle from her. She defied their and the villagers' attempts to prevent her ultimate injury. When she pricked her finger, she looked surprised. Then she danced: See, I'm okay. Just a little prick. Her parents mimed relief until Murphy started to stagger around, reminiscent of how Giselle stumbles during the mad scene.

Again, McKenzie and his colleagues made great use of the corps and supporting dancers during the scramble to find and catch Carabosse after Aurora swooned. Each dancer seemed to have a goal and direction, which crossed others in the same pursuit, filling the stage with a wonderful sense of frantic movement.

Act II introduced Stiefel and his four companions right away in a exuberant dance en manège. Then a white-wigged man (Vitali Krauchenka) strode on, but his brightly lipsticked mouth and exaggerated makeup made me think it might be a woman in men's clothing.

McKenzie changed this act to give more importance to the Prince Désiré role. Instead of just striding around and gesturing as in the Petipa version, Stiefel sent his entourage away to contemplate his future. Sticking with the more classical moves, Stiefel danced to the solo violin about his unfocused future. He happened to see the enchanted castle in the distance, and then, during a naptime dream, the Lilac Fairy and her attendants introduce him to Aurora.

Murphy again displayed a sad version of the princess, begging Stiefel to come rescue her. It seemed the wrong attitude to offer a prospective spouse. Why would anyone want to get together with a depressed person? A provocative, playful demeanor would have seemed a better choice.

The technical glitches occurred in this act. The griffin boat that the Lilac fairy and Désiré ride to the enchanted castle lurched before Stiefel could climb aboard, provoking giggles from the audience. Being true professionals, neither Stiefel nor Abrera broke character, although a smile twitched on their faces. The rolling boat seemed almost to have a mind of its own, wandering around the stage, stopping and starting a couple of times. The other glitch was a noisy pulley that lowered a scrim down and then opened it for the rescuers.

After the prince defeated Carabosse's beetle-like minions and stabbed the evil fairy, he kissed his sleeping princes and broke the spell. A minimal number of castle staff awoke and joined the happy couple before the final act. The king and queen were absent as they had left the castle after Aurora pricked her finger, another change from the familiar storyline.

On the grand procession into the wedding, the fairy-tale characters played with each other; especially delightful was how the kitty (Copeland) teased the wolf (Arron Scott) and her Puss-in-Boots (Alejandro Piris-Nino).

The wedding couple receive a caged lady, Princess Florine (Lane), who stepped from the cage into the bluebird pas de deux. Lane's strong pointe work and Radetsky's effortless batterie deserved the audience's loud applause. Stiefel and Murphy executed the final grand pas de deux with technical excellence, although Stiefel did simple grand assemblés instead of beating them and Murphy's piqué solo seemed excruciatingly slow.

Music Director Ormsby Wilkins conducted Orange County's Pacific Symphony energetically, and the orchestra members performed Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky's score flawlessly.

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