American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
July 5, 6E, 9, 2011
“The Sleeping Beauty”
Status of the Company Commentary
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.