American Ballet Theatre
The Sleeping Beauty
Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center
New York, NY
June 1, 2007
Marius Petipa first presented “The Sleeping Beauty” in 1890, to a score commissioned from Peter Tchaikovsky. Since then, stagings of the ballet have taken both inspiration and limitation from Petipa’s creation, when an evening at the Imperial Ballet in Czarist Russia was likely to last much of an evening, and include pauses to dine, to converse, and to ogle the latest fashions and the women who wore them. It was a leisurely process.
Times have changed. Although there’s still dining, conversing, and ogling, in every respect a night at the ballet generally can, and usually does, pass more quickly. The dancers can move faster and with greater skill and efficiency, the most complicated-looking sets can be changed at the push of a button, and costumes that may have taken hours to assemble in Petipa’s day can now be removed and replaced in a relative heartbeat.
Any staging of “The Sleeping Beauty” that aspires to mine, but not simply recreate, Petipa’s original is thus challenged both to retain the flavor (and, of course, much of the choreography) that Petipa created, but also to make the ballet a modern work of art that appeals to audiences accustomed to life in the fast lane. American Ballet Theatre’s sumptuous new production of “The Sleeping Beauty” walks this artistic tightrope. While additional streamlining and updating would have been welcome, the fact that the presentation succeeds as well as it does in updating this classic to fit more modern sensibilities is a tribute to the vision and obvious dedication of Kevin McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland, and Michael Chernov, who are collectively credited with creating the additional choreography and the staging that make the more than century-old Petipa production a classic for this century as well.
It would not be possible, in one review, to list all the changes that the creative team has made. But a few examples: Gone is much of the tedious dancing by the Prince’s friends and hangers-on in the introductory section (the “hunt” scene”) of Act II. Gone too are most of the fairy tale character dances in Act III, replaced by distillations. And, thankfully, gone is one of the silliest of scenes, when the Prince, having finally found the sleeping Aurora, can’t figure out what to do next and asks the Lilac Fairy, who tells him – essentially – ‘dummy, use your brain’. This Prince Desire is no dummy; he knows what to do instinctively.
Instead, the production gives us a new Garland Waltz that is as intelligent as it is beautiful to watch. Not only does this dance stand, or dance, on its own, but in this conception it becomes entwined with the action, with the upheld garlands serving as gateways for the entry of the foreign princes during Princess Aurora’s 16the Birthday Party. And instead of opening Act II with the sleep-inducing hunt scene and accompanying dances, this version has Prince Desire and friends jetting across the stage in a series of non-stop leaps that make them look like deer on the run. [A program note indicates that this production was ‘inspired by the 1952 staging of Konstantin Sergeyev for the Kirov Ballet. Having not seen that production, I can’t tell if these and other choreographic improvements were so inspired.] And this production’s Carabosse is updated to be more than just a wicked witch – she’s an insect-like sci fi marvel with bee-hive hair who (at least as embodied by the redoubtable Martine van Hamel) looks a little like a combination of Marge Simpson, Barbra Streisand, and the Bride of Frankenstein. It’s a little scary and a little funny at the same time.
But even though this production to a large extent succeeds in shooting adrenalin into what can at times be a tedious presentation, some artistic choices sabotage this effort. For example, in tandem with streamlining the “hunt scene”, this production seems to have added some brooding by the Prince that inordinately extends that same low-decibel section of the piece. It is unfortunate to have added the wonderful new introduction to the Prince in Act II, only to slow things down to a crawl immediately after. And at the beginning of Act I, this production spends much too much time having the King vent his rage at seeing a banned spindle. This preliminary scene could have been done much more quickly to the same effect. And there are still choreographic dead spots that, while accurate for Petipa purists, are nevertheless guaranteed soporifics to its pre-teen target audience (and accompanying relatives). This version is much too intelligently done to come across, at times, as simply a museum tapestry that moves. But perhaps, over time, this creative team will fix these and other minor stumbles. It’s been done. [As I recall, the previous production went through several revisions after its initial season.]
The cast selected for this World Premiere presentation matched the caliber of the production, both in ability and execution, and in demonstrating a connection with the heritage both of the piece and the company.
It could not have been coincidental to have Veronika Part, who was born in St. Petersburg and is a former ballerina with the Kirov/Maryinsky Ballet, dance the first Princess Aurora in this restaging of a ballet so bound historically to Russia. But whatever the reason, and in the face of many who questioned the casting, Ms. Part did a fine job. Currently a company soloist, Ms. Part’s promotion to principal is long overdue.
Having seen her Odette/Odile with the Kirov, as well as more recently with ABT, I expected Ms. Part to be a technically accomplished Aurora. But she appears more comfortable now than she did during the first few years after she joined ABT, and is definitely sleeker. The transformation makes her line even more crisp than it was before; and her never-ending ponche arabesques even more glorious to watch. Most impressive, however, was the simple clarity of her movement. Nothing was out of place – every step she took was executed with extraordinary clarity and precision -- almost as if she’d been coached by a dancer whose reputation for perfection is legendary. Which, of course, she was.
Understandably tense, and obviously careful, in Acts I and II, she nevertheless did all that she was asked to do, sometimes sufficiently, sometimes brilliantly, but always appropriately, with no mistakes. And in Act III, she relaxed and became exciting to watch, with a hint of the warmth and sensuality that usually permeates her performances. Given time, her Aurora will blossom.
Her Prince Desire needs no such nurturing – Marcelo Gomes is having an extraordinary season already, and his performance in this production simply provides added gloss. He moves with the command and strength that one would expect (he literally devours the stage), but also, given that he’s one of the company’s taller dancers, with surprising speed and agility (as he demonstrated even more spectacularly last week as Oberon in “The Dream”). And his partnering abilities are top-notch. Simply put, he is an invaluable, and perhaps irreplaceable, member of the company.
The performance’s Bluebird was danced by Herman Cornejo. Cornejo was Cornejo. At this point in his performing career, that probably says it all. Xiomara Reyes was a flourishing Princess Florine. As the Lilac Fairy, Michele Wiles (who replaced Gillian Murphy) needs to show, throughout her performance, the sparkle that finally appeared in Act III.
But for sheer fun, nothing topped the reappearance of former company members who returned to add even more pedigree to a production awash in it. In addition to Ms. Van Hamel as Carabosse and Victor Barbee as King Florestan (both of whom are no strangers to current ABT productions), this performance included Susan Jaffe as the Queen, and Wes Chapman as Catalabutte. All added class to an already classy stage. And seeing Gelsey Kirkland, whom I haven’t seen on stage in nearly 25 years (and who will dance Carabosse in later performances), made it all even more magical.
Finally, homage must be paid to the artistic team that created the sets, costumes and lighting for this production. I must confess that, being somewhat familiar with the ballet, I did not take time to look at the program until long after the performance, and had no idea who was responsible for what can only be described as the most awesome – in the truest sense of the word - of fairy-tale frameworks. Finding out that these sets and costumes were created by theatre legends Tony Walton and Willa Kim, and the lighting by the equally respected Richard Pilbrow (whose lighting for Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” I remember to this day) and Dawn Chiang, instantly explained how they could possibly have been so extraordinary. Even if this production had been a failure, the sets, costumes and lighting would have been remembered as perhaps the finest examples of how to make a fairy tale come to life.
Last edited by balletomaniac on Mon Jun 04, 2007 9:41 am, edited 1 time in total.