Beauty and the Beast of Time

“The Sleeping Beauty”
The Royal Ballet
Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
 June 22 & 24 evening, 2006

by George Jackson
copyright ©2006, George Jackson

Irreversible time: in “The Sleeping Beauty” a mere 100 years signals not just a change of fashion but also the leap from arranged betrothal to romantic love. Ideas about staging this ballet have differed too since its premiere in 1890.   

Already in 1896, Giorgio Sarocco’s production for La Scala in Milan designated a different locale for the final act than envisioned by scenario authors Marius Petipa and Ivan Vsevolojsky. In order to justify divertissements for so many storybook characters at the royal nuptials, Saracco set the scene at the Lilac Fairy’s abode in the Land of Legend instead of at Princess Aurora’s ancestral palace. Petipa’s choreography and Peter Tchaikowsky’s music, though, were kept intact. Two of the 20th Century’s famous stagings, Serge Diaghilev’s in 1921 and Ninette de Valois’ in 1946, did more than trim and tuck. Both producers were modernists with a romantic view of tradition. They considered “Sleeping Beauty” to be the touchstone of dance classicism and simplified its text in order to perfect its form. Light and dark, beauty and ugliness, good and evil were not just opponents but made diametric opposites. To help sharpen the contrast, there were cuts. Some new passages of choreography and even other music by Tchaikowsky replaced portions of the original. By the ballet’s end, vice had been vanquished and virtue  triumphed more simplistically than in 1890.  

De Valois’ version succeeded beyond artistic merit. Coming right after World War II, it symbolized the termination of hostilities, the end of austerities and a new dawn for optimism. The original’s allusions to ancient Greece and the Sun King’s France linked the contemporary world of its audience to golden pasts. So did the 1946 edition but, due to historical circumstance, it also pointed to a brilliant future. The tremendous impact of this “Sleeping Beauty” at its home theater — The Opera House at Covent Garden, London — was duplicated wherever it toured. For Central Europe, according to Joseph Gregor, it represented the triumph of reason. In America, it created the taste for multi-act ballets and a tolerance for pageantry and pantomime.

Eventually the 1946 production of “Sleeping Beauty” wore out. Subsequent stagings at Covent Garden, particularly the last two, didn’t live up to that one, so it isn’t surprising that Monica Mason — current director of Covent Garden’s resident Royal Ballet — looked back to what had become the legendary British version. The 2006 edition by Mason and Christopher Newton, which received its American premiere on Thursday, is “after” the post-WWII one by De Valois’ team but isn’t a duplication. It is opulent too, so much so that it looked a bit cramped on the KC Opera House stage. Still, the choreography can sparkle and the mime carries. The message isn’t quite what it was before: marriage is made more romantic than formal and although virtue is rewarded, vice isn’t vanquished quite as easily. Unquestionably though, Mason’s team has gotten the British “Sleeping Beauty” out of its slump!

The differences between then and now are discussed authoritatively in John Percival’s May 29, 2006 review for this site. Here are things I liked or, having seen the 1946 production a few times, felt were missing this time. There was nothing to thoroughly dislike — for that I’d have to mention other people’s versions. In Act 1, Aurora’s entrance used to be a true introduction. It took time. She came into view skipping along a path from upstage right, paused at a colonnade which gave her a glimpse of the court assembled downstage, pulled herself together and, still with a joyous step but a new dignity of carriage, proceeded down to the waiting crowd. We had witnessed a carefree girl becoming a responsible princess. Now, visible only as she steps out from behind a colonnade, Aurora is too suddenly amidst people.  

The garland dance in Act 1 is fresh and bold. Partners even face each other for a few measures, waltzing in a ballroom rather than a stage manner. The floor plan is set on a diagonal. Compared, though, to the rest of the choreography — still mostly Petipa’s as set by Nicholas Sergeyev — this number seems busy. It is new and by Christopher Wheeldon. In Act 2’s traveling panorama scene, as the Lilac Fairy (playing Cupid) journeys with Prince Florimund to Princess Aurora and her slumbering court, there are cascades of greenery — foliage pours down like a thousand waterfalls. This also is new and it is lovely although not the travelogue called for. The biggest difference for me is Mason’s celebration of romantic love. There has been, of course, a dose of it in all productions. De Valois, though, made clear that the final union of Princess and Prince is a matter of state. That’s what her Act 3 was about. Mason and her dancers, to the end, focus on the personal attraction between Aurora and Florimund.

Dancing is key, of course, to the success of any “Sleeping Beauty”. Thursday it ranged from promising to promise kept. Alina Cojocaru as Princess Aurora was fleet of foot and refined with line. It was volume — the spatially rounded, sculptural aspect of classical dancing — that she didn’t emphasize. Cojocaru developed the role a little, being somewhat more womanly at her Act 3 wedding than she had been at her 16th birthday in Act 1. She was at her best in Act 2, in which Aurora isn’t actual but a vision for Prince Florimund. Perhaps dreaming in the 100th year of her slumber, she also became cognizant of him. In these spellbound passages Cojocaru strikingly alternated the speed with which she moves up and out from center with a firm shift into down-drive. Contrast at last! Her Florimund, Johan Kobborg, was elegant and strong, whether dancing or acting dissatisfied, enraptured or devoted as called for. The Prince’s role requires a tricky combination of reserve and projection for he is both noble and, especially in this version, romantic. Kobborg struck the right balance, and with aplomb. Marialena Nunez in the third major dancing role, the benevolent Lilac Fairy’s, had qualities I looked forward to seeing in her Aurora, yet for Lilac she lacked sweep. Among the other fairies, all beautifully rehearsed, the two last — Natasha Oughtred and Laura Morera — excelled. In the Blue Bird divertissement, Sarah Lamb gave her entrance an exciting delicacy that she didn’t quite sustain during the rest of the pas de deux.  Her Bluebird, Yohei Sasaki, was the opposite — sedate at first but ultimately providing leg beats as fluttery as wings. The women of the Royal’s corps have speed and precision. Their backs are more upright than the supple Kirov ones we saw last week. A few of the men are thick in the seat and thighs. 

Saturday evening, Marianela Nunez didn’t live up to my hopes for her Aurora. She looked grown up from the start. Her jump can be strong, her balance secure and in Act 2 her flow was silken. She didn’t, though, seem to command the acute knee action required for Aurora’s flying rondes de jambes in Act 1 or for the strong shifts down from high side extensions in Act 2. Moreover, Nunez seemed upper middle class, not royal in scope or demeanor although her Florimund, Thiago Soares, was very much the dashing romantic noble in looks and behavior. Soares dances on a big scale yet isn’t always polished. Isabel McMeekan’s Lilac was a shade pale, and in the Bluebird duo Laura Morera out-danced Brian Maloney. Alexandra Ansanelli’s Crystal Fountain Fairy had a cutting edge as well as continuous flow.

Mime roles matter much in “Sleeping Beauty” and the Royal Ballet never puts nonentities into these parts. Christopher Saunders’s King was personably regal. Elizabeth McGorian and Genesia Rosato switched roles. McGorian, Thursday’s Queen and Saturday evening’s furious Fairy Carabosse, keeps her acting sparse and essential whereas Rosato generates atmospheres by fussing a bit. Alastair Marriott as Cattalabutte, the King’s  Major Domo on Thursday and as Gallison, the Prince’s Major Domo on Saturday, is fond of making characters of his characters. Overall, the manner of acting is relaxed compared to the Kirov’s high style.        

This new “Sleeping Beauty” wins over the competing British version that Peter Wright made for the Royal Ballet’s sibling company in the past century and now seems to be in repertories all over the world. I’ve seen it performed by its originating company and also in Santiago de Chile and Vienna. Over the years, Wright has filed his production to run like clockwork, but efficiency isn’t why we go to the ballet. The “Sleeping Beauty” that intrigues me most is one of two versions currently danced by the Kirov: a reconstruction by Sergei Vikharev for the 21st Century of the 1890 original. It is of Wagnerian length, somewhat cumbersome and layered with riddles. The furious Fairy Carabosse does not sink into oblivion. Apparently she’s made her point and Cattalabutte gives her a place of honor at Aurora’s wedding equal to that of the benevolent Lilac Fairy. In the apotheosis, Apollo — the sun god and patron of the arts — is aptly honored, but so is Pallas Athena and it is the goddess’ horrid visage (kept hidden in her temple in Athens) that is shown. What did Petipa mean by such things? Perhaps the Royal’s new production, which can’t rely on the post-WWII spirit, should have taken the results of Vikharev’s archival research into account and given a current British reply to the old riddles.        

Volume 4, No. 25
June 26, 2006

copyright ©2006 George Jackson



©2006 DanceView