Describing Janessa Touchet’s incarnation of Princess Aurora one viewer of the Cincinnati Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty,” said, “Saying that her dancing is ‘musical’ is an understatement.”
“Yes,” said another, “But (and not to dim your sense of her radiant artistry) I might rather say that when we speak of a dancer’s ‘musicality’ we are referring to an elastic, if you will, absolute that in this case Janessa’s Aurora personifies.”
And during the Rose Adagio of the Sunday matinee, Kirk Peterson, the choreographer after Petipa for this realization of “Sleeping Beauty,” said to this viewer as he fit the fingers of his hands together, “Janessa and the music are like this.” And with that simple gesture, Peterson put the ever-expanding want for physical or metaphysical explanations of ‘musical’ to an end. Yet, there is more to be said.
The honorific use of ‘musical’ also applies to musicians. The narrative importance of solos composed for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, violin, and cello to 19th century ballet, particularly to the big three, “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” is manifest. These instrumental colors stand to the ballet as ballerinas stand to the ballet. And for this production of “Sleeping Beauty,” Peterson connects Acts One and Two with an orchestral interlude held together by Tchaikovsky with familiar motifs and solo violin. In one section, for example, a delicate pas de quatre with solo flute, oboe, and clarinet, the violin weaves a picture of burgeoning love. (And for present day listeners, the use of the familiar “Tree Growing” motif from-or for the future- “Nutcracker” supports this sense of development.) Without the superlative musicality, musicianship, or skill of Kiki Bussell, violin, Evelien Woolard, flute, Lorraine Dorsey, oboe, and Eugene Marquis, Clarinet- in fact one must loudly credit the entire woodwind section- the narrative importance of the music that links Acts One and Two would have foundered – and wrecked the ballet that surrounds it.
Yet, one often hears comments such as, “What violin solo?” Caught, one thinks, in the whirl of intense aesthetic moments, the perceptual features of “Beauty”, for example, seemingly blend together. At such moments, the effort required to perform “Beauty” vanishes also. And Lilac commands such a moment. (One deletes ‘fairy’ from her sobriquet as a hedge against the Disnefying effect the word has on her character. Lilac, as one has previously written, and her sisters, including Carabosse manifest a reflex of the Valkrie tradition in literature. In this tradition, which includes Grendel’s Mother and “Beowolf’s” Wealtheow words such as adorable, cute, sweet, or laughable are inappropriate.) The regal grace of Mishic Marie Corn’s Lilac is that of an angel described by the Mannerist painter, Raphael. Brilliant, unstrained, and serene Corn’s Lilac contrasted sharply with the gloomy, self-hugging, and predatory alertness of Sarah Hairston’s Carabosse. One observed, however, that the ‘musicality,’ the sharp attacks and perfect timing (or maybe it’s tuning) of Jennifer Drake’s Carabosse spelled that character’s evil in capital letters.
Who could fault the Court of King Florestan for leaving Carabosse off of an invitation list? The presents of such a crashing bore (or is it boar?), particularly at a christening, seems more like an endorsement of her decent into monstrous selfishness rather than a demonstration of respect for Her Majesty. Nevertheless, it is Florestan’s avoidance of responsibility for this oversight rather than the faux pas itself that costs him, in one’s view, the capital of his Sovereignty. Even if Florestan managed to recover that loss, the moment, however, that forever bankrupts his kingliness and reduces his sovereignty to a level neither more or nor less than that of other mortals is his failure to heed Lilac’s prophecy. Florestan’s all-to- human hubris blossomed when he banished spindles from his realm - a futile gesture. And, if that isn’t bad enough, at the beginning of Act Two, he again acts as if he can avoid or defeat Fate perhaps this time absolutely by hanging the Norns. (These are the Nordic sisters three that weave each human’s destiny.) And when The Queen finally snips that thread of King Florestan’s mad folly the warmth and color of the Garland Dance signals the realm’s celebration of life’s fateful waltz.
In “Tchaikovsky’s Ballets,” Roland John Wiley points to the composer’s use of orchestral color and dynamic markings to musically embody the “mellow brilliance” of gold in Act Three’s Gold Variation. Eureka! And with this discovery, one now happily informs the idea of musicality with that of gold’s “mellow brilliance.” Hence, in addition to re-describing the musicality of Touchet in particular, the term also applies for the cast of “Sleeping Beauty” in general. Moreover, one also finds in the articulate or punctuated flow of the Gold Variation or better still the Garland Dance’s melodic sweep and staccato accompaniment a sonic “image” for continuity. The Garland Dance’s promise of fecundity anticipates Act Three’s resounding celebration of continuity. Here Aurora, after years of suspension, resumes her life. And the fact that Florestan’s Court went with her suggests that the liquid medium of heritage, self- possession, confidence, and independence indeed all that she is stayed its course. And she (like Beowulf’s Wealtheow whose story hers echoes) will become Sovereign. Yet, one thinks, that “Sleeping Beauty” transcends the crass materialism of political authority, and the Sovereignty one speaks of refers to the self-rule common to (and expected of) all. Although spectacular in regal décor, it is, nevertheless, folk tales, folk dances, particularly the Mazurka, and Blue Birds, for example, that dominate the divertissement of Act Three. It is, however, because the Apotheosis of “Sleeping Beauty” uses a tune popular in the 19th Century, “Vivre Henri IV,” that one rests the claim that the ballet reflects on common human experiences.