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New York City Ballet

'The Sleeping Beauty'

by Jerry Hochman

February 14, 17 and 22, 2013 -- Koch Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York, NY

The generally accepted wisdom used to be that as a product of New York City Ballet’s Balanchine heritage, NYCB dancers moved faster, and with greater clarity and more neoclassic stylistic uniformity, than dancers in any other company. But in terms of acting ability, these same NYCB dancers were on a lesser level than their peers in companies that relied more heavily on plot-based ballets. This was nonsense from the time I began attending ballet performances (in the Stone Age), which was when I first heard it, and is nonsense now. But should there be any lingering doubt, it would have been dispelled by the three NYCB performances of The Sleeping Beauty that I attended over the past two weeks. While one may quibble about stylistic variations from the norm (Balanchine vs. Petipa) or bemoan the choreographic quality of the changes Mr. Martins made (or failed to make) from more familiar versions, the three Princess Auroras (Ashley Bouder last Thursday, Sterling Hyltin on the 17th, and Tiler Peck this past Friday), as well as other featured members of the cast, all impressed as first rate actors as well as dancers.

This production of The Sleeping Beauty, choreographed, after Petipa, by Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, lacks the opulence, the complexity, and the bells and whistles of the current production by American Ballet Theatre (which will be part of ABT’s 2013 Spring Season at the Metropolitan Opera House). And except for the Garland Dance, which was choreographed by George Balanchine, what original choreography there is, in most cases, is not particularly memorable. But simplicity can be a virtue, and this 1991 production, which had its season debut as part of the company’s Tchaikovsky Festival on February 13, does not interfere with the performances. And I must admit that the more I saw it and stopped comparing it with other productions, the more I came to appreciate it on its own terms.
Be that as it may, the performances leave a more lasting impression than the overall production, so it is appropriate to address them first.

It is sometimes easy to overlook Ashley Bouder. In a company with dancers as strong as those in NYCB, Ms. Bouder, for all her proficiency, comes across as relatively ordinary (except with respect to her ability to move like lightning, which has always been one of her signature strengths). She does everything well, but to this viewer doesn’t have the unique, extraordinarily personal qualities of other NYCB principal ballerinas.

And then one sees her Princess Aurora, and whatever one may have thought before doesn’t matter. Simply put, at the February 14th performance Ms. Bouder delivered one of the finest, and most complete, portrayals of Aurora that this viewer has seen. By any company, at any time.
There was not a low point anywhere or anytime in Ms. Bouder’s performance. From her entrance in Scene II of Act I (‘The Spell’), to her gloriously executed concluding pas de deux in Scene II of Act II (‘The Wedding’), she was spellbinding. What the audience at last Thursday’s performance may remember most is her exceptional balance capability. Her Rose Adagio was flawless – but it was better than that. She held every unassisted en pointe balance longer (but not inappropriately longer) than she needed to -- including the astonishing final balance, which she held as long, if not longer, than the prior three, eventually slowly lowering her right arm, and then teasingly hesitating a few seconds before allowing her hand to gently grasp the waiting hand of the last of her suitors. Not a hesitation; not a wobble, and no need for a quick rescue. [I had previously considered ABT’s Gillian Murphy to be the champion at finding and maintaining her center; Ms. Bouder was her equal last night. For anyone familiar with Ms. Murphy’s performances, that statement, by itself, says it all.]

This wasn’t ‘milking’ her balances past the breaking point to show off; this was pure control and accomplishment, and it was matched by everything else Ms. Bouder did. Her characterization was spot on. She was convincing as a young girl at her 16th birthday party, and majestic as a newly crowned queen at the ballet’s conclusion. Everything in between was merely superb: she was totally in command at every point in the performance.

But there were two Princesses at last Thursday’s performance: Ms. Bouder and Lauren Lovette, in her debut as Princess Florine in Act II’s Bluebird Pas de Deux. While the Bluebird Pas de Deux, appropriately, provides more of an opportunity for bravura display to Bluebird (here danced with precise exhilaration by Daniel Ulbricht), Ms. Lovette made the most of her role, dancing with delicacy, finesse, and crystalline clarity. But it wasn’t the technique that was most extraordinary – it was Ms. Lovette’s stage presence. The was no hint of sensuality, as I have seen previously, and no gently commanding appearance, as there was in her debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Those stage qualities would have been inappropriate for a Princess Florine, and neither was presented here. Instead, her characterization was one of simple, unaffected, youthful radiance. A week after this performance, Ms. Lovette, who has only been a member of the company for two and a half years, was promoted to soloist. As detailed below, other dancers were promoted as well, but among the ballerinas Ms. Lovette’s ascent has been, justifiably, the most meteoric.

Following Ms. Bouder’s fabulous Aurora , I thought it might be unwise to attend other performances which could not possibly be as good. I was wrong. [Which I admit is getting to be a nasty habit.] Sterling Hyltin’s portrayal at Sunday evening’s performance was extraordinary in its own way, and equally as memorable as Ms. Bouder’s.

While Ms. Hyltin was not as astonishingly secure in her balances during the Rose Adagio as was Ms. Bouder, I doubt that anyone else could have been. That having been said, Ms. Hyltin’s Rose Adagio was, technically, very well done – with the only ‘flaws’, if they can be so described, having been a bit too quick to grasp the first two of her four suitor’s hands. Other than that, to this viewer her performance was flawless. She nailed every turn, using her legs as thrillingly dynamic flourishing punctuations and her soft, liquid arms as visual counterpoints, and her ability to project – to dance, as I’ve previously described, larger than life – is truly remarkable. But more significant to me was her portrayal. Hers was a youthful and glowing Aurora, a little understandably overwhelmed by the attention, but reveling in it in an unassuming, gracious way. And Ms. Hyltin added nuances to her portrayal as all superb dancers do – the way she greeted her parents; acknowledged her suitors, and responded to the attention she was getting – that I suspect are unique to her, and that made her performance all the more real, and all the more enchanting.

In any other venue, Ms.Peck’s Aurora would be considered equally noteworthy. She did it all, with her usual zest, and with particular attention to varied phrasing, which she used as an effective tool throughout her performance. But to this viewer she was a slight bit less secure in maintaining her balances than Ms. Bouder and Ms. Hyltin (Ms. Peck was merely superb, rather than sensational), and was somewhat more pensive. Again, however, this is a matter of degree, not a measure of quality. Had I not seen Ms. Bouder and Ms. Hyltin, I would be raving about Ms. Peck’s performance without qualification.
Friday’s cast was further enhanced by another fabulous performance; one that was so complete and accomplished that it changed my evaluation of the role. Before Teresa Reichlen’s star turn as the Lilac Fairy, I had attributed the less than stellar performances in the role that I had previously seen to deficiencies in Mr. Martins’s concept of the role. I still think the choreography is less exciting than it could be, but Ms. Reichlen brought the role of Lilac Fairy to life.

Ms. Reichlen is a very strong dancer, but strong like a diamond. There is nothing forced about her stage character – she is neither overly melodramatic nor over the top. She dances with a measured, majestic grace that is perfect for Lilac Fairy, and she clearly was not only the uber-fairy, she was the only one of the three I saw who, by her stage presence alone, had the visual and emotional power to match, and surpass, Carabosse. She was Glinda to Carabosse’s Wicked Witch of the West. The other two Lilac Fairies (Janie Taylor last Thursday, and Rebecca Krohn last Sunday) just didn’t have the essential presence. Ms. Taylor’s pallid performance may have been the result of a loss in focus following an early fall. Ms. Krohn’s performance on Sunday, her debut, suffered from the same bland quality; perhaps Ms. Krohn will add a sense of gravitas, of being more than just another fairy, as she grows into the role.
Compared to other productions (e.g., ABT’s current version), the role of Carabosse here appears to have been reduced almost to a cameo. I cannot say with certainty that any part of the score in which Carabosse appears has been cut, but it certainly appears that way: the role looks considerably less meaty than it is in other versions. That having been said, Jenifer Ringer, looking like Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands, delivered a strong Carabosse at last Thursday’s performance. Marika Anderson’s Carabosse on Sunday was equally strong, but appeared to this viewer to be more nuanced. As she demonstrated in her vivid portrayal of The Queen at Thursday’s performance (a role that usually blends into the wallpaper), Ms. Anderson has a remarkably expressive face, which she used to elevate the role of Carabosse in this production to a higher level. Hers was a very fine performance. But the strongest of the three was Georgina Pazcoguin on Friday. Ms Pazcoguin, who the previous day was also promoted to soloist, has a dynamic, outsized stage presence (a quality she demonstrated so effectively in New York Export: Opus Jazz), which she used to great effect as Carabosse.

As Prince Desire at last Thursday’s performance opposite Ms. Bouder, Andrew Veyette was the prince next door. While his technique and execution are always commendable, and were Thursday night, it is his unassuming stage personality that is particularly memorable. Indeed, one of Mr. Veyette’s most engaging qualities is an infectious and honest smile, particularly evident when he realizes that he’s done something a little less than perfectly. He is a wonderfully human, as well as a gifted, danseur. On Friday, opposite Ms. Peck, Tyler Angle’s characterization was powerfully drawn and crisply executed, with particularly extravagant tours and impressive ballon.

Sunday’s performance marked Robert Fairchild’s debut in the role, opposite Ms. Hyltin. Unlike Mr. Veyette, Mr. Fairchild was no prince-next-door. He was royalty from his first stage entrance; naturally noble to the core. And his execution was merely superb. As I’ve previously described, Mr. Fairchild is at the top of his game (I found it difficult to believe that this was his first Prince Desire) both in his individual execution (even his ennui looked princely), and in his unobtrusive partnering. For example, while Ms. Hyltin was secure throughout her performance and appeared to require little assistance, there was one point (and only one point) where I sensed she came out of a turn with her weight off center. Had she not been partnered well, her line might have been lost. But Mr. Fairchild kept her centered, without at any time appearing to do anything extraordinary. His was a remarkable debut. Mr. Fairchild may have tried to be too perfect. The only ‘glitch’ in his performance that was apparent to this viewer was a visible difficulty getting his overly ornate hat onto his head after he accepted the Lilac Fairy’s invitation to join him on a voyage to find his princess. Following a battle (between him and the hat) lasting a few seconds, Mr. Fairchild finally got the feathered hat to stay perched on his head – barely – as he climbed onto the boat. I suspect that had the same problem occurred with Mr. Veyette, he would have quickly decided to bury the hat under his arm, or sheepishly toss it into the wings. Mr. Angle would have simply shoved the hat onto his head and moved on.

On Sunday, as Princess Florine and Bluebird, Ana Maria Scheller and Antonio Carmena began their pas de deux strongly (particularly Ms. Scheller), but each seemed to lose interest, and became less interesting to watch, as the pas de deux progressed. Ms. Scheller’s portrayal became monochromatic and somewhat mechanical, and Mr. Carmena simply appeared to run out of gas. Under the circumstances however, as last minute replacements for Lauren King and Harrison Ball (who were to have had their role debuts that night), their performances were more than adequate. In the same roles this past Friday, Erica Pereira and Anthony Huxley gave commendable performances, marked in both instances by appearing to be light and airy enough to fly away.

Other noteworthy performances included Savannah Lowery, Ms. Pereira, Alina Dronova, and Jared Angle (in his role debut) as the glowing jewels (Diamond, Ruby, Emerald) and their Gold escort at last Thursday’s performance. Ms. Lowery was particularly, and wonderfully, regal. Last Sunday, the same respective roles were performed by Megan LeCrone, Ms. Lovette, Sara Adams, and Adrian Danchig-Waring, all of which were role debuts. Each performed admirably, but Ms. Adams was the more exuberant standout. On Friday, these same roles were danced by Ms. Lowery, Ashley Laracey, Brittany Pollack, and Ask la Cour, and Ms. Pollack gave a particularly glowing performance. Also notable was Ms. Laracey’s clearly articulated execution of the Fairy of Generosity at Sunday’s performance. Kristin Segin and Devin Alberda were a delightful White Cat and Puss in Boots last Thursday, with Sarah Willwock and Taylor Stanley filling the same roles at the other two performances. [Ms. LeCrone, Ms. Laracey, and Ms. Pollack were also promoted last week to soloist, as was Mr. Stanley; and Mr. Danchig-Waring and Mr. la Cour were promoted to principal.] Arch Higgins provided extraordinary detail and dynamism to the role of Catalabutte last Thursday and again on Friday; it was a pleasure to see him back on stage (he is now listed as a company Guest Teacher). And Isabella Vanik (Thursday and this past Friday) and Claire Abraham (last Sunday), both students at the School of American Ballet, were very fine and spunky Little Red Riding Hoods, chased by Daniel Applebaum as The Wolf at all three performances (Thursday was his role debut) – but in this day and age one should seriously consider whether this vignette should be staged as it is – it isn’t funny anymore.

The conducting by Clotilde Otranto last Thursday and Daniel Capps on Friday was well done, with Ms. Otranto adding particular spark. The conducting by Interim Music Director Andrews Sill on Sunday was generally appropriate and lively, but his pacing frequently and unforgivably lagged slightly behind Ms. Hyltin, who is one of NYCB’s speed demons, forcing her to slow down a bit to avoid being ahead of the music.

Until Thursday evening’s performance, I had not seen this production of The Sleeping Beauty in many years. After three viewings, the production appears more ‘together’ to me than it did at first (last Thursday), but it still suffers from uninspired choreography and a mixed bag of artistic choices. For example, the fairy variations in ‘The Christening’ (Act I, Scene 1) are simply dull. While they may have been patterned ‘after’ Petipa, something’s been lost in the translation. Similarly, and although I like the basic, elegant, white, off-white, and light pastel-colored gowns (the costumes were designed by Patricia Zipprodt), the choreography for the Wedding Scene (Act II, Scene 2)is bland. Further, the choreography for the gems is essentially a rehashing of certain of the fairy variations from 'The Christening' scene (Act I, Scene 1), and the post-Wedding ‘apotheosis’, which looks like it was an added afterthought, is too remindful of the final scene in Balanchine’s The Firebird.

On the other hand, eliminating the more frequently seen dull corps choreography that opens the ‘Vision Scene’ (Act I, Scene 3) was a good decision. Although I’m not sure that turning the Countess in this scene into an unsympathetic, overbearing nag was a good artistic choice, it certainly made it easy for Prince Desire to be convincingly unattached and unsatisfied.

But cutting excess baggage was not an artistic choice that was applied consistently. The decision to have Prince Desire travel for an interminable time to get to the sleeping princess, a carryover from legacy productions, and then have to cut through miles of overgrown brush, with his sword, to reach the castle, slows the action to a crawl. Worse, the scene culminates with the silliness, from a contemporary point of view, of preserving the mime dialogue between the Lilac Fairy and Prince Desire when he reaches the sleeping princess (‘What do I do now?’ ‘Think, dummy.’).

I’m well aware that this is a fairy tale, and that it doesn’t need to be realistic – so Mr. Martins gets a pass on the sword/scythe/machete. But failing to update this scene with some contemporary pacing was an opportunity lost, and the preserved mime dialogue would have been better left to a faithful museum reproduction of the Petipa original. The scene brings to mind memories of an old ABT production (not the current one), where one could go out for a coffee break when Prince Desire begins his search through the woods, return to one’s seat, and still find him wandering through the forest. I still feel sorry for the late, great Fernando Bujones to have had to endure that.

Aside from the Garland Dance {which is an extraordinary example of Balanchine’s ability to make a crowded stage – 32 ‘garden dance villagers’; 8 ‘maids of honor’, and 16 SAB students – not only look uncluttered, but vibrant), the most memorable aspect of this production is the scenery created by David Mitchell (complemented by Mark Stanley’s lighting). In particular, the changing curtain images provide a wonderfully moving, as well as ephemeral, stage set. [I mean ‘moving’ in the literal sense – the ‘pictures’ projected onto the scene curtains are progressive, and move the scene visually closer to or further from the center of the action, whichever is appropriate.] Indeed, it seems to this viewer that the presentation was made as it was in order to have the ballet appear to emerge from the pages of a children’s story book, complete with illuminated engravings set apart from the text that can visually transport the reader to another world.

And it is in this sense that the ballet works best: it does take the audience into another world, and the nuts and bolts of what happens there may not be nearly as significant as the overall feeling it inspires. It may not be as opulent as the Land of the Sweets in NYCB’s production of George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’, or as magnificently imagined as the current ABT production of The Sleeping Beauty, but it does the job of being a comfortable and accessible visual fairy tale. Whatever its perceived flaws, Mr. Martins’s The Sleeping Beauty is a fitting culmination to NYCB’s Winter 2013 Season Tchaikovsky Celebration.

One final note – all the performances of The Sleeping Beauty (at least, all the performances I saw) appeared to have been sold out, with Friday’s performance being particularly full. There’s ‘sold out,’ and there’s really ‘sold out’. I’ve never before seen people populating the theater’s Fifth Ring, which has a view of the stage roughly equivalent to sky diver’s view of the earth. On Friday, even the Fifth Ring was filled. Since the company dances full lengths as well as other ballets from the repertory so well, and since full lengths are so popular, it might be wise economically (and no harm artistically) to populate each season with at least one full-length ballet. In that sense, this coming Spring 2013 Season’s schedule represents a wasted opportunity.

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