Works & Process: American Ballet Theatre – "The Sleeping Beauty"
Guggenheim Museum
New York, NY
April 16, 2007

by Dale Brauner
copyright © 2007 by Dale Brauner

The Works & Process series event, “American Ballet Theatre — The Sleeping Beauty” was intended to provide a sneak preview of the company’s new production of the Marius Petipa classic (which will be unveiled fully during during the company's upcoming spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House) but the great curiosity was Gelsey Kirkland. The superstar ballerina is assisting Kevin McKenzie in staging “The Sleeping Beauty”, but with the ABT artistic director unable to attend the Guggenheim Museum lecture due to illness, the prodigal daughter took center stage — to prolonged applause at her introduction.

Kirkland’s brilliant career, and battle with eating disorders and substance abuse, is well known from her tell-all book “Dancing on My Grave.”  Receiving less publicity was the follow-up, “The Shape of Love”, also written with then-husband Greg Lawrence. That tome told the story of her comeback: dancing “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Romeo and Juliet” at The Royal Ballet in 1986.  While she was in England, she discovered her love of coaching after she was sidelined with an injury.

The 54-year-old Kirkland currently lives in Melbourne, Australia with husband Michael Chernov, a theater director and former actor and dancer. After a 13-year absence from ABT, she has recently been a guest teacher at ABT’s Studio Company and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, as well as coaching at the main troupe.

It’s not a surprise Kirkland has found renewed life as a coach. One of the most cerebral dancers (some have said she analyzed and rehearsed too much), Kirkland had the most amazing ability to appear utterly spontaneous and free on stage. In this session, which was moderated by former ABT dancer and current ballet master Wes Chapman (Chernov was on hand to provide some ballet history), it seemed as if the slightest suggestion by Kirkland, dressed in slim black pants, black shirt, and flowing shawls, suddenly made a world of difference.

Coaching in public is a tricky thing. It can sometimes provide a stage for a coach to aggrandize herself or she might come off his unnecessarily harsh. The dancers are also required to be good sports and quick studies.  Thankfully, we had none of the former and a lot of the latter. In addition, the dancers had to negotiate a tiny, slippery stage.

The session featured fairy variations, performed by Maria Riccetto, Adrienne Schulte, Yuriko Kajiya, Zhong-Jing Fang, and Kristi Boone; a slideshow of set and costume design sketches from “The Sleeping Beauty” by Tony Walton and Willa Kim; the “Rose Adagio” performed by Irina Dvorovenko, with Blaine Hoven, Jared Matthews, Isaac Stappas, and Patriot Ogle; and the Bluebird adagio and coda, dancing by Riccetto and Craig Salstein.

After Kirkland said the Prologue set the stage for the ballet’s themes of “life and death, love and hate, hope and despair, harmony-disharmony”, we knew this production would not be some Disneyfied “Sleeping Beauty.”  McKenzie and Kirkland would be looking for some deeper truths.

“These gifts that are brought by the fairies in the prologue actually define Aurora’s character,” Kirkland said before imparting advice. To Riccetto, she said to really bend down and cradle her arms as if holding the baby Aurora.  Boone was shown the proper way to model her body. Kirkland turned to the audience, twisting to the right she said, “we have to remember, this looks different than this (twisting the other way).” Indeed, Kirkland was able to convey a completely different colorization simply by shifting her weight. She pushed Schulte to exaggerate a forceful sweeping movement with her arm. “It sort of is outside the classical tradition but it works.”  Kirkland had Kajiya (the Fairy of Charity) explain the movements of her arms, using the images she told her in rehearsal: “first I’m calling the birds, now I am feeding them the seeds, then they fly away…”

After several of the variations, Kirkland pointed out that all of them started out at back house right and ended upstage house left. “It’s an important diagonal. It is where, later in the ballet, the prince chooses between his world and his destiny. And the fairies mark his path.” Throughout her coaching, Kirkland exhibited a fine balance between imagery and nuts and bolts technique.

Dvorovenko followed with a rock solid “Rose Adagio”, despite an announced sore foot, and Riccetto and Salstein were charming in their portion of Bluebird, although it was obvious they weren’t dancing full out due to the stage conditions. 
Sketches of the new costumes and scenery were shown: Aurora’s delicate pink tutu with garlands of flowers decorating her skirt; an early version of Princess Florine, since discarded due to it being too bird-like; and the fairy cavaliers (a discussion was held on whether to call them “knights” or “elves.”  Thankfully, “knights” won out). The scenery was revealed to have a natural progression, with Chernov saying the sets were based on the seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter.

ABT has had several productions of “The Sleeping Beauty” but none since the one by Kenneth MacMillan, last seen in the 1990s. One was planned in 2001 but it had to be scraped when the company went through a rough patch financially, according to the New York Times. Hopefully, this one, kissed to life by Kirkland and McKenzie, will have a long reign.

Volume 5, No. 16
April 23, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Dale Brauner

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