”Sleeping Beauty,” San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, February 27, 2007
Divine Right reasserted itself on U.S. shores last night as Tina Leblanc as Princess Aurora and Gennadi Nedvigin as Prince Desiré rescued their Empire by waking up an otherwise narcoleptic “Sleeping Beauty.”
The story is well known. First of all, we’re in a land that has an abundance of fairies and one of them who is here called the Fairy of Darkness and in other versions, Carabosse, puts a curse on the baby princess Aurora, who sure enough, when she’s out reveling one fateful night, after having rejected four suitors, gets pricked by a spindle hidden in a rose. In other versions, she’s just pricked by the rose because it is one of nature’s ironies that every one of those tricky flowers bears thorns. Thanks to the kindly Lilac Fairy, the sentence imposed by Fairy of Darkness’ is reduced from the death penalty to a one hundred year Beauty sleep, whereupon the Lilac Fairy, who is—bottom line—the Ultimate Wedding Planner, engineers a kiss from the Prince that awakens the Princess, and they get married. All of Christendom attends their wedding and gets to catch some really class acts. As the audience, we get to see them too, but hopefully from the vantage point of more perspective.
In this version, if you don’t read the program notes carefully and just go by the costumes, Princess Aurora falls asleep in the Middle Ages and awakes in something like the early 20th Century. I didn’t consult the library’s seminal work on costume, 20,000 Years of Costume, to confirm my suspicion that Aurora oversleeps here by about 500 years, by which time Father Gapon was gadding about Russia with Anna Pavlova and Diaghilev organizing strikes of the dancers against the Imperial Ballet! The costumes by Jens-Jacob Worsaae, (also credited for the sets) were splendidly turned out, the tutus as ornate as one can imagine. Historically, however, they veered a tad off the timeline, with those in the opening processional dressed in floor length caftans and then the Hunting Party Ladies decked out in calf-length gilt skirts and black blazers that looked like they came from the “Auntie Mame,” back lot costume shop, the black not very easy on the eyes against the dark green forest.
It’s a ballet with lots to do but not much to say, so when it becomes incoherent it can look like little more than a pageant with a talent show thrown in, and that’s why the staging is so absolutely key. The choreographer has to build an armature out of the supporting cast to generate anticipation about the fates of the ballet’s hero and heroine. Mystery, intrigue and romance must resonate, and the Lilac Fairy has the enormous task of suffusing the work with graciousness to bind the plot together and make us care that all goes well in the end for the protagonists. Apart from problems posed by costume anachronisms, that armature is what went missing from last night’s performance. The staging was linear and so the efforts of even the best dancers (and the men were especially at their best) were flattened. A work of this size, if not scope, can reveal more about the company’s weaknesses than is necessary. San Francisco Ballet has become a very large, strong company over the past five years, but it is in transition now, integrating a shank of new corps members, and having promoted a number of its dancers to the rank of soloist, wanting to try them out in roles previously danced by veterans. If you recall Katita Waldo’s Lilac Fairy of several seasons ago, it is hard to accept the version danced by Sarah Van Patten, who, though she has made big strides over the last year, seems unready to assume the beneficent “eyes everywhere” responsibility essential to that character. Without her stewardship, the ship falters and eventually sinks because in truth, the story provides no captain. It didn’t help that a member of the orchestra accompanying Van Patten went a whole measure off course during the final notes of her solo.
The Rose Adagio, which wasn’t identified as such in the program, was lovely as danced by Leblanc, but in this version, rather placing the four princes a few steps’ distance from the Princess to heighten the tension, the suitors tend to hover around her, very nearly passing her hand from one to the other, creating too much of a pileup onstage. They look like a support group instead of competitors. The Puss and Boots divertissement, danced by Pauli Magierek and James Sofranko, two of the company’s finest and most versatile dancers in my opinion, were hampered by tepid staging and not-contrasting white costumes. Waldo, as the Enchanted Princess was completely enchanting; her partner, Joan Boada seemed overwhelmed by his charge as Bluebird, and apart from stunning elevation and nice brisés volés, failed to fully connect with his character or his partner.
Gennadi Nedvigin is technically every inch of the way a story book prince and thanks to a single coquettish backward glance over her shoulder, Tina Leblanc was able to wake up his chemistry in the final pas de deux, which was a smashing success. He was challenged by an orchestra that was playing like a runaway horse and carriage, giving him barely enough time to straighten his knees and point his feet in the manege of his solo variation.
If you have never seen it before, it is worthwhile to go to get familiar with this ballet and appreciate the stage managing and feats achieved by the technical crew. I am certainly curious as to how other casts manage the challenges posed by this staging, but hope that future productions deliver more conceptually.