"The Sleeping Beauty"
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 9 , 2007 (evening)

by Michael Popkin
copyright © 2007 by Michael Popkin

How bad is ABT’s new production of “Beauty”?  If you’ve been reading the critical reaction, you’ve seen a remarkable unanimity of opinion:  the production is a travesty, poorly designed, tedious to watch, dramatically misguided, and hokey.  But what I didn’t realize until I saw it on Saturday afternoon with what should have been a great cast — Gillian Murphy was Princess Aurora and David Hallberg her Prince — is that the failure goes beyond that:  alone among the current and past productions of "Beauty" we’ve seen in New York, it destroys your ability to appreciate great dancers and great dancing.
Let's start with Hallberg. The single most misguided idea in this production is the attempt to take the role of the Prince and elevate it into the most prominent one in the ballet, at the expense of the Sleeping Beauty herself (so that the ballet could literally be called “The Sleeping Prince” when he does indeed fall asleep and get hoisted about during the Hunt Scene). Hallberg is arguably the most gifted young male dancer in America today. Tall, blond, and a prince by physical type, he has grace, effortless dance skills, talent as an actor, and a compelling stage presence. 
He should have been a great Prince Desiré and upon his entrance during the Hunt Scene looked marvelous in an early Eighteenth Century costume (hair in a queue, doublet and hose) that set off his classical proportions and lines. Just standing still and looking romantically “longing” in a slight pliee pose at the edge of the stage nearest the audience (he did a lot of this and it was the best thing McKenzie had him do), he held your attention. And when thereafter he began to dance long dreamy solos, whipping through turns into brief arabesque poses, or throwing off easy tours jetés that showed an attitude pose briefly in the air, you thought for a moment that the ballet was credible. But them, poof! The solo was interrupted. Hallberg stopped dancing and fell asleep for a vision, not of Aurora but of her castle!  Four attendants dressed in fish scale costumes entered, lifted him and carried him about like Siegfried on a shield in a Wagner opera.  And when he woke, and started to dance again, once more my attention was engaged, then  . . . “Poof.”  An absurd silver boat like a Batmobile with a prow that looked like an eagle pecking at a horse’s leg entered to take him up the river. A river of Aurora’s mother’s tears no less!  No performance could survive scenarios like these (before the Awakening, he’s also trapped in a spider web above the stage).
Murphy, in the best shape of her career (she appears noticeably slimmer and stronger right now than she did last fall and as a result she’s stretched her lines) labored under the same handicap. She gave an honest, committed and convincing performance that got better with each of her three major scenes. Though physically she’s a little tall for Aurora (she’s more of a natural Lilac Fairy perhaps than a natural princess), it’s a stylized role that depends more on performing the steps with strength and glamour than upon dramatic verisimilitude; and in a production that was at least neutral and not destructive of appreciation (ABT’s prior one, for example) she would have been compelling.

As it was, she did everything strongly:  the balances in attitude in the Rose Adagio were secure and solid (although I’d like to have seen the attitude pose itself more wrapped and dynamic — Murphy doesn’t get much drama out of her back in attitude and also carries her working leg very low) and her acting was also nicely detailed;  in her Vision scene her natural hauteur conveyed the inaccessibility of her character and her technique was impressive; and her grand pas de deux was suitably regal.

The trouble with all of it, though, was the appearance of calculation. What remained of the great Petipa original had the air of gala performance excerpts from “Sleeping Beauty” rather than a spontaneous performance of the ballet; and this, again, was the fault of the new scenario. When the grand pas de deux comes at the end of an interminable act when the prince has arrived at Aurora’s Walt Disney castle only after being suspended above the stage in a spider web and surrounded by a group of Carabosse’s creatures dressed like aliens; and when in that scene Carabosse apparently gets “hung from the neck until she is dead” after doing battle with the Prince suspended on a high wire . . . . What is the grand pas de deux going to look like except for an excerpt — a classical set piece adrift among the kitsch?  It looks like one because it is an excerpt among the Disneyesque, Pied Piperesque (remember that one, ABT fans?), stew of elements in this production.     

As with Murphy and Hallberg’s performances, so with the rest of the cast, who tried valiantly to breath life into a camel that would not be vivified.  Maria Riccetto was miscast as the Lilac Fairy but no one could make the concluding image of ballet work when, with the King and Queen absent from Aurora’s wedding and apparently still asleep, it’s the Lilac Fairy’s apotheosis we see, lifted insecurely on wires dangling above the stage, struggling with an oversized gold crown. 

Carmen Corella’s valiant struggle with the hugely prominent role of Carabosse provoked the same reaction.  She performed wonderfully, miming clearly and appearing memorably villainous and melodramatic.  But the role is more that of a magician, with lots of firecrackers going off, eruptions of dry ice smoke, and sparklers or roman candles spurting on cue, than one for an artist, and it trivialized Corella’s training and talents.

The fairy variations (and many assorted repetitions thereof) are all more or less traditional and recognizable versions of the choreography and were well danced by Melanie Hamrick (Sincerity), Adrienne Schulte (Fervor), Jacquelyn Reyes (Charity), Sarah Lane (Joy), and Misty Copeland (Valor).  Several deserve special mention:  Hamrick is a tall dancer with musical finesse; and Lane’s talents are such that she could have been given a shot at the lead role in this ballet instead of this smaller part, though it was her good fortune that she wasn’t.  Copeland’s phrasing in the Valor variation was interestingly musical and clear.

Sascha Radetsky and Hee Seo were the Bluebird and his Princess Florine. He wasn't strong enough for the role.  Seo is a young Asian dancer with an extraordinary technique, beautiful phrasing, and strong stage presence. So strong that she overpowered Radetsky, and that's not supposed to happen. She needs a stronger partner.

Roman Zhurbin and Maria Bystrova courageously mimed their ways through the roles of the King and Queen (before their unexplained disappearance) and, in her one brief passage of dance Bystrova showed what an amazing Lilac Fairy she could have been in a traditional production. The role of Catalabutte gave little scope for Craig Salstein’s native dramatic talents. But the Garland dance, thankfully again in a more or less recognizable version (no “Aliens” or “Fish Scale” creatures among the villagers) was well very nicely performed by the corps de ballet, with two most appealing youngsters from ABT’s school, David Alvarez and Skylar Brandt, leading the ensemble.  

Volume 5, No. 23
June 11, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Michael Popkin

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