“The Sleeping Beauty”
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 2, 2007

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2007 by Leigh Witchel

We might as well start with the good. Gillian Murphy was a strong, capable Aurora. She easily navigated a Rose Adagio conducted at a brisk tempo by Charles Barker; the rest of her performance was on the same able level. Ethan Steifel partnered her with complete security — not a bobble in the fish dives — and is back from his injuries with strength. Stella Abrera danced one of the “traditional” derivations from Lopukhov of the Lilac Fairy variation. It was lovely and a great relief to see. Martine van Hamel, always a strong presence, made a vivid Carabosse. 

If you’re fond of American Ballet Theatre’s new production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” it’s time to stop reading; it all goes downhill from here. I wish I could write in more detail about the dancers, but there isn’t much to say.  They’d be better in an actual version of the ballet. It’s hard to be kind about this “improved” but misguided and painful version where every improvement is actually deterioration. Now, to add to ABT’s bad “Swan Lake” and awful “Nutcracker,” they have a new, bad “Beauty” with the exact same mistakes and problems as those earlier productions. This fact is the most maddening of all.

Once again, the production looks motivated by a desperate attempt to insert men into the 19th century classics. We’ve got knights dancing with Carabosse and tossing her in the air and gaggles of guys doing double sauts de basques in the entr’acte. None of these additions makes any sense, instead, as with the Prince’s vision before the actual vision scene, they undercut the original story. 

Once again, the additional choreography is below the level of what it augments or replaces. The production credits additional staging to Kevin McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Chernov but is not specific about who did what. The only person who escapes blame, though not abuse, is poor Marius Petipa. Whoever is responsible for the choreography, it certainly has the same problems as in McKenzie’s “Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake.”  McKenzie is a classical choreographer who seemingly has no ability to make dances for a corps de ballet. The dances are so obsessed with steps that all they have are steps, preferably big jumps for the men or people frantically streaking from side to side in grands jetés. Corps work isn’t just steps; it’s shape, design and geometry. For a lesson in the same McKenzie and team could go and look at the Ashton and Balanchine ballets the company danced immediately before this. I’m not even asking for metaphor; I’d settle for geometry here.

Once again, the production substitutes a sophisticated sense of the magical with a Disneyfied sensibility misconceives fairytales as kiddie ballets. We didn’t get Rainbow Brite unicorns this time (small favors, but thank you), but the costumes and sets by Willa Kim and Tony Walton are garish with overdone slashes of intense primary colors and metallics that look straight out a cartoonist’s workshop. From the Kountry Kottage Kastle in the opening scrim we know we’re in for a saccharine evening.

I have seven pages of apoplectic scribbles that I could cite examples from, but I trust you to get the point.  ABT styles itself our national classical company, but its productions of the classics are fourth-rate and show no signs of improvement. The finest production that’s credited to the current artistic team is their good version of “Giselle.”  It’s the one that’s been changed the least from earlier sources. When are they going to learn?

Photo: Herman Cornejo as Puck. Photo by Fabrizio Ferri.

Volume 5, No. 22
June 4, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Leigh Witchel

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