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American Ballet Theatre

'The Sleeping Beauty'

by Jerry Hochman

July 5, 6 (E), 9, 2011 -- American Ballet Theatre, Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

In 1890, when “The Sleeping Beauty” premiered in St. Petersburg, attending a
performance was an Event. Unless one had a pied a terre near the theatre, getting there
was a chore not for the faint of heart or body, and, once there, one tended to stay awhile
to enjoy a leisurely meal in between acts, to show off one’s current trophy companion,
and to catch up on the latest addition to the family tree, news from the front, current
political intrigue, and/or who’s doing what to whom. Much the way things are today.
Except today one doesn’t expect to be leisurely entertained for hours on end:
contemporary sensibilities require a faster pace and more bang for the buck.

In its original incarnation, “The Sleeping Beauty” lasted more than three hours
(reportedly close to four hours including intermissions). Aside from attempts to restore
the “original” (such as the Kirov’s reconstruction in 1999), artistic directors and
choreographers have been playing with “The Sleeping Beauty” ever since, either to keep
a ‘new” production reasonably true to the original, or to provide the production with a
more contemporary feel and pace.

The attempts have had mixed results. I recall clearly the first American Ballet Theatre
full-length production in 1976 (with additional choreography and staging by Mary
Skeaping), which appears to have been in the ‘reasonably true to the original’ mode.
Unfortunately, what I remember most about this production is that it lasted longer than
three hours, and the voyage of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and then Fernando Bujones,
through the forest primeval to reach the sleeping Auroras (Natalia Makarova and Cynthia
Gregory, respectively) was a sure cure for insomnia. In ensuing years, I recall that ABT
attempted to cut this production to a more manageable length, but seemed unable to
quicken its pace.

ABT’s current version of “The Sleeping Beauty,” which premiered in 2007, is in the
latter mold. As staged by Kevin McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland, and Michael Chernov
(based, of course, on the original Petipa), this version takes liberties with the original,
mostly in the form of cuts, but also with some replacement choreography and a more
contemporary restaging. I am not a purist – while I may like to know what the original
production of a piece looked like, I’d prefer to see a production that doesn’t require a pre-
performance caffeine overload. So I like the attempt in this production to get the tonnage
to move. That having been said, however, to this viewer the modifications do not go far
enough, and ABT is still struggling to get it right (or at least better) – as evidenced by the
significant modifications that had been made to the staging when the production returned
to the repertoire last year after a year’s hiatus. Aside from my comments in last year’s

review, which I will renew but not repeat, the Prologue still moves too slowly, Act III
still has too many dead spots (a Petipa legacy), and the modified choreography doesn’t so
much quicken the pace as it merely reshuffles the deck. For example, the added
variations in Act III for the same fairies who appeared in the Prologue (except for the
additional dancing for the Lilac Fairy, which is a great idea that works), while they serve
to limit extraneous characters, don’t really shorten things; and, combined with the
continuing although reduced presence of the fairy tale characters (Puss-in-Boots, Little
Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and companions), the effort at focusing the action doesn’t
work either.

As child-unfriendly as it is may be, why not jettison the fairy tale characters completely
(the way the production has them now just looks silly)? If that’s a step that the artistic
team is unwilling to take, it may make more sense to restore the complete divertissement
for Puss-in-Boots and Little Red Riding Hood (they didn’t take very long anyway – the
problem was the dead time in between), and eliminate the additional variations for the
subordinate fairies. And if you’re going to do that, then bring back the metal/gem fairies
too (gold, silver, diamond). But then, except for the scintillating additional dances for the
Prince and his friends that opens Act II, the merciful elimination of the mimed
instructions to the clueless (‘what-do-i-do-now?’) prince by the Lilac Fairy (‘think,
dummy’), the enhancement of the Lilac Fairy’s role, and the pyrotechnics in the Prologue
(a great way to awaken the grownups), we would essentially be back to the original.

But in the end, whether the production is stupefying or merely incoherent, what matters
is what one remembers (provided one can stay awake), and what one remembers as a
member of the audience are the performances. The first full-length “Sleeping Beauty”
production I saw was a matinee performance by the Bolshoi at the Met in 1975 (I decided
to go to a matinee because the foreign companies gave the matinees to up-and-coming
dancers that few outside of ballet cognoscenti had ever heard of). I remember nothing at
all about the production. But I remember a young ballerina named Ludmila Semenyaka,
whose glorious performance I still gush about to this day.

So as academically interesting and controversial a production may be (and although I’ve
just spent six paragraphs discussing production values that may not make much of a
difference), what matters most for ABT is not so much the production but the
performances.

To say that all three Auroras (Veronika Part on the 5th, Alina Cojocaru on 6th E, and
Gillian Murphy on the 9th M) and one (Ms. Cojocaru) extraordinary, and that both Prince
Desires (Marcelo Gomes on the 5th and 9th M and Johan Kobborg on the 6th E) were
very good and one (Mr. Gomes) extraordinary, states what has become the obvious. I’ve
seen Ms. Part and Ms. Murphy deliver better performances previously, but that’s relative
– each of them was her usual superb self (I focused on Ms. Part’s crystal clear lines and
never-ending extensions; and on Ms. Murphy’s gorgeous port de bras), but Ms. Cojocaru,
who was substituted for Natalia Osipova (after Ms. Osipova’s scheduled partner, David
Hallberg, became injured), did things I’ve never seen before, in addition to her believable
characterization and rock-solid balances that seemed to last forever. One would expect

her partner, Mr. Kobborg (in his debut in the role with ABT), to partner her impeccably;
he did, and he more than held his own with additional choreography for Prince Desire in
this version. But Mr. Gomes was he always is – helping the ballerinas when they needed
help, being there when they didn’t, and dancing superbly without making himself the
center of the universe. .

In this production, the role of the Lilac Fairy is significantly enhanced over other
versions I’ve seen, and these performances were blessed with dancers who enhanced the
enhanced role. Stella Abrera has been dancing of late with a renewed clarity and added
elegance. But Ms. Part’s Lilac Fairy, at the 9th M performance, took the role to another
level. To Ms. Abrera’s clarity and elegance Ms. Part added a natural regality that made it
undeniable that she was the fairy queen. [Ms. Part would be a natural to dance Titania in
Ashton’s “The Dream” (which also needs to be returned to the ABT rep).]

All three of the Princess Florines that I saw (Sarah Lane, Isabella Boylston, and Misty
Copeland) were super. Ms. Lane was the most accomplished of three, perhaps because
she’s been dancing the role the longest, but Ms. Boylston danced the role as beautifully
as I expected her to, and Ms. Copeland (even with a couple of minor stubs that had no
visible effect on her performance) was extraordinary. Her improvement over the past
couple of years has been remarkable. The two Bluebirds didn’t fare quite as well. Mr.
Simkin, who partnered Ms. Lane, was his usual extraordinary self when he danced by
himself – no one presently with the company does the tricks that Mr. Simkin can do and
do them as well, and his solo work consistently brings down the house. But his partnering
is still tentative at best, and he was unable to balance Ms. Lane in the lift as the pair
exited during the coda, and came perilously close to dropping her. Sasha Radetsky, who
partnered Ms. Boylston and Ms. Copeland, was a much more attentive and accomplished
partner, but although his execution of the steps was what it was supposed to be, he
appeared to be concentrating too hard, and perhaps as a result, his Bluebird lacked what
to this viewer is essential animation, coming across instead as bland and bloodless.

Martine van Hamel and Nancy Raffa were both terrific Carabosses, with the edge, in this
viewer’s opinion, to Ms. Raffa as being more deliciously wicked (as I wrote last year,
she’s a fallen angel of a wicked witch). And of the various fairies, Renata Pavam and
Leann Underwood were marvelous Fairies of Charity, Simone Messmer a crisp Fairy of
Valor, and Ms. Boylston a vibrant Fairy of Fervor. Zhong-Jing Fang and Luciana Paris
danced the Fairy of Joy with exuberance, but no one does it better than Yuriko Kajiya.
The only criticism of Hee Seo’s Cat (to Sean Stewart’s Puss in Boots) was that the
production does not include the entire divertissement, and consequently there wasn’t
enough of Ms. Seo to see. And Jessica Saund’s Countess made the Prince’s melancholy
incomprehensible. Lastly, it was good to welcome back Susan Jaffe as the Queen and
Wes Chapman as Catalabutte.

With the close of another Met season, some stock-taking is in order. The examples above
clearly indicate the predicament that ABT is presently in. I’ve previously written that
ABT is the New York Yankees of ballet – when they want a world-class dancer, they go
out and get one. This is fine as long as you’re building from within as well, but that’s not

happening to a sufficient extent – and this year it became a problem. Among the nine
male principal dancers, four (Maxim Beloserkovsky, Herman Cornejo, David Hallberg,
and Ethan Stiefel) suffered injuries sufficient to eliminate three of them for the entire
season and a fourth (Mr. Hallberg) for the last couple of weeks; one (Jose Manuel
Carreno) retired (sort of – he was recalled two days later to pinch-hit); and two (Roberto
Bolle and Angel Corella) were, inexplicably, hardly used – Mr. Corrella was only
scheduled for one performance during this eight-week season (although he was recruited
to fill-in at another). This left only Marcelo Gomes and Cory Stearns to carry the danseur
load. To help fill the void, ABT could not rely upon its male soloists (with the possible
exception of Jared Matthews and Gennadi Saveliev – and Mr. Saveliev was absent from a
number of performances, and perhaps was himself injured) because – aside from their
individual technical capabilities, they are not tested or sufficient as partners (Mr.
Simkin’s ability to partner Ms. Osipova doesn’t count, since she doesn’t seem to need
one). So ABT recruited an assortment of danseurs from around the world who were not
even formally elevated to the level of ‘guest artist’ in the company roster.

The situation is different with respect to its ballerinas. There is an embarrassment of
riches in its talented female soloists. Ms. Abrera, Kristi Boone, Ms. Boylston, Ms.
Copeland, Ms. Kajiya, Ms. Lane, Ms. Messmer, Maria Riccetto, and Ms. Seo are ready
for lead roles now – that they generally are not given them is unfortunate not only for
their growth as ballerinas, but for the audience to see what they can do and, most
importantly, for the company to grow from within. It’s not that the talent isn’t there – it’s
that the company is giving the talent nowhere to go. And although it may be true that
ABT management cannot rely on its soloists to perform consistently at a world-class
level, or to recover from possibly negative reviews, or, perhaps more importantly, to sell
tickets, the problem is that this outlook makes it essentially impossible to nurture dancers
to become 'world class' because they’re never given the opportunity to gain confidence,
audience recognition, and the chance to grow as artists.

And the consequence of insufficiently developing its male dancers and under-utilizing its
ballerinas does not just implicate the soloist level (which I’ve previously described as
soloist purgatory), it has consequences with the corps as well. ABT has a wealth of
talented corps dancers, both male and female, who are not given the opportunity to assay
roles that may be appropriately challenging for them because soloists are stuck doing
them.

This is not a tirade against importing superlative guest artists, which has been an ABT
hallmark in years even preceding Mr. McKenzie’s current run as Artistic Director. This is
about promoting growth from within as well as paying hired guns to fill gaps and sell
tickets. I would not have traded the opportunity to have seen ABT’s guest ballerinas this
season – but there has to be a balance, and consistent opportunity for growth. The
consequences are too great.

 

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