writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

A Valiant Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
February 19, 2004

by Mindy Aloff
copyright 2004 by Mindy  Aloff

published 23 February 2004

The photograph you see here is of Jenifer Ringer (with Philip Neal), the first-cast Aurora in the New York City Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. The last two weeks of NYCB’s winter season have been given over to Beauty, and, in that time, the company is fielding five sets of principals. Several critics from The Dance View Times will be writing about the other casts next week. This review considers the first cast I was able to see, with Yvonne Borree as Aurora, Nikolaj Hübbe as Prince Désiré, Kyra Nicholas as The Fairy Carabosse, and Maurice Kaplow conducting. Before I begin, I want to give my frame of reference for critiquing this ballet.

The greatest version I’ve ever seen, albeit patchwork, was the Oliver Messel production, choreographed by Frederick Ashton and Nikolai Sergeyev after Marius Petipa, with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora, partnered variously by Robert Helpmann and Michael Somes, in Victor Jessen’s extraordinary film, made surreptitiously in 1949 and the 1950s, during the Sadler’s Wells Ballet’s U.S. tours. Alla Sizova’s Aurora, to Yuri Soloviev’s Prince Désiré, in the commercially released film of the Kirov’s production from 1964 is also in my thoughts when I see any production. The greatest performances of Aurora that I’ve seen live are one by Irina Kolpakova, with the Kirov in its 1952 production by Konstantin Sergeyev, and the one matinee accorded to Altynai Asylmouratova, rather late in her performing career, during the Kirov’s presentation at the Met, in 1999, of its more recent, historical version, which attempts to reproduce something rather like the original, 1890 production. And I’ve seen both Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov dance Prince Désiré. Since the 1970s, I’ve seen, also live, two different productions at The Royal Ballet, Kenneth MacMillan’s version at American Ballet Theatre, and two different productions from the Kirov. I have also been watching NYCB’s production, designed by David Mitchell, since its première in 1990 and have seen at least one performance each time it was revived. And I was present when George Balanchine’s staging of the Garland Waltz was given its première at the 1981 Tschaikovsky Festival—one of the most dazzling premières I’ve ever witnessed in the theater.

There are dance critics around who have seen the Messel production, with Fonteyn and others, many times live and who have also seen many more productions. There are even a few people alive who have memories of Diaghilev’s legendary 1921 version, called The Sleeping Princess. None of us who write, and none of the dancers and balletomanes who may have even more experience and don’t write, are typical members of any audience for this ballet today. For this group, it is not just one more show—not even just one more Petipa show. We look at it through layers of remembrance and expectation: it sums up a schooling, a point of view, an approach to the theater, and a history of transformations. Alexandre Benois, Anna Pavlova, Balanchine—all had their lives changed by seeing (or, in Balanchine’s case, by participating in) a performance of this work. Fonteyn’s Aurora is so beloved that it’s practically sacred.

So when I say that, in my view, Mitchell’s designs for the NYCB Beauty are magnificent, especially given the budget available, and that, also in my view, Peter Martins’s choreography, “after Petipa,” valiantly resolves several problems for both the company and for its contemporary audiences and also offers a number of charms of its own, I realize that my point of view isn’t widely shared. It may not sound like much of an endorsement to say that, in paring down a four-hour ballet to two and a-half hours—while still telling the story clearly and including the major set pieces and without cutting any individual scene completely—in order not to run into overtime for the dancers, musicians, and stagehands (surely the chief reason for the streamlined running time), Martins performed an exemplary job of dance engineering. However, that’s just what he did, which means that first-time and occasional viewers (especially young children) can understand the events and see something of what the ballet has offered audiences elsewhere. Martins isn’t a visionary: this is a Beauty whose choreography looks back to established productions of yore and expertly edits them, rather than one that re-invents the academic presumptions that underpin them or enlarges and complicates the imagery, as Balanchine did, say, in his staging of The Nutcracker. The note of hysteria on the King’s part in the passing-the-buck episode of the First Act, when it is discovered that Carabosse has not been invited to the christening, doesn’t do much to recommend that regent’s sense of responsibility for his kingdom. Still, the entrances for the major characters, the dance for Carabosse’s locust attendants, and several of the divertissements are charming and apt. And although the characterizations are more childlike, more play-acting than one would hope for—closer to Jerome Robbins’s 1975 Mother Goose than to any of the fairytales that Balanchine staged—the tone of what they are is maintained throughout, and transitions between scenes are swiftly and expertly effected. I have many questions about Martins’s leadership of NYCB, but his contribution to The Sleeping Beauty is not the subject of any of them. Too, an important reason for the production’s success on this level is that much of the magic is produced by the scenic transformations and set elements. Mitchell left amazingly little to chance. As with any Beauty, of course, the ultimate impression is still a matter of how the score is conducted, how the musical time is created anew. At the performance I attended, Maurice Kaplow seemed to have some difficulties in keeping the score’s themes and instrumental voices at once individually articulate and harnessed to a common theatrical mission; however, his tempi were brisk (for some dancers, it looked, brisk to the point of producing anxiety), and, at this performance, they were a great help for the audience.

That said, his production, while it contains a fragment of Balanchine’s vision of the ballet—and is being offered this season as an example of Balanchine’s heritage—is no more than a bare outline, if that, of what Balanchine saw and performed in as a boy and is certainly not what Balanchine might have made, himself, given health and an open checkbook. Both of those versions are lost to us, even though the Kirov has given us what is probably a reasonable suggestion of the older one and even though we can try to extrapolate the one we will never know from the richness and fine construction of Balanchine’s Garland Waltz, with its three clusters of femininity, representing, perhaps, Aurora as a child, as a teenager, and as a vision, and its two kinds of garlands—one, for the young couples, that is stiffened and serves as moving architecture; the other, for the unaccompanied young girls and the tiny girls, soft and fluent.

Instead, NYCB’s Beauty is a true tribute to the hopes and ideals of Lincoln Kirstein, the company’s cofounder and the person whose taste and learning not only pervade every stage picture but who also was working with Mitchell on the concept and designs for the ballet as early at least as 1985, when Mitchell redesigned Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. When, that year, I interviewed both Kirstein and Mitchell for a company program essay about Brahms-Scoenberg, Mitchell showed me the maquette for Beauty’s Awakening. This is, I believe, before Martins choreographed a step for the ballet. At that time, the hope was that the bed on which Aurora reposes when the Prince discovers her could be engineered to convert itself into the throne for the last scene. (It’s a brilliant idea that I have no doubt carried Kirstein’s imprint; it embodies his concern for what he called “apostolic succession,” as do the last moments of the ballet, in which King Florestan and The Queen remove their crowns and capes and place them on Aurora and Désiré, a staging detail that one doesn’t find in other productions.) Although the bed-throne transformation didn’t prove to be feasible, you can still see the ghost of the idea in the last scene’s upstage portal, a kind of drawing in wire, which evokes the bed’s outline. Mitchell’s designs for the early outdoor scenes, now projected as a montage—they give the audience the illusion that it is gradually approaching the château where the royal family resides in splendor yet not in grandeur—are clearly influenced by the 15th-century Les Très Riches Heures du Jean, Duc de Berry, perhaps the most sumptuous book of hours to have survived from the early Renaissance. The golden zodiac in the sky, on a field of cornflower blue, is a direct translation from that masterpiece by the brothers Limbourg. (Only a production of Beauty that Kirstein, a bibliophile of rare taste, had vetted would take as its model not an illustrated children’s book but the rarest of illuminated manuscripts, meant to be accompanied by prayer.) All of these designs have been beautifully rendered. Patricia Zipprodt’s fantastical costumes—light yet suggestive of weight, saturated with color and subtly detailed with military references for the scenes of Aurora’s infancy and youth; flooded with light for the scene that celebrates the court’s reawakening and her wedding—provide such lovely rhymes of hue and design that they’re practically songs in silk. Her dress for The Fairy Carabosse, a jet-black apotheosis of an Elizabethan gown that harbors the evocation of a tarantula, may be a sly reminder of Martha Graham’s Elizabeth and Mary section of the 1959 Episodes. Whether or not the allusion was intentional, its particular chemistry of glamour and evil is just right for Kirstein, who linked those elements more than once in his autobiographical writings.

Yvonne Borree, the Aurora I happened to see, is a very hard-working dancer who, alas, is unable to project her dancing as theatrical impulses that “read” from the house. A tiny figure, she is tight in the neck and shoulders, a flaw for which she seems to try to compensate by dropping her sightline and lowering her head, and multiple pirouettes from a single preparation present a problem for her. Her dancing elsewhere this season has looked brittle and overrehearsed, and, among many balletomanes, she has become the company’s Galina Mesentzova or Irma Nioradze—the ballerina whose performances one tries to avoid. And yet how carefully she had prepared her Aurora. Her small footwork, her petit allegro—battu, in particular—had been polished to a fare-thee-well. And her wedding variation was a miniature marvel of nuance and shading in gesture, a delightful reading of the music as Aurora’s happiness and hope for children of her own. On the other hand, I was seated tenth-row orchestra level. I’ve seen Borree dance from further away in the State Theater, and I knew, as I was watching, that what I admired wouldn’t reach beyond the middle of the orchestra, much less the rings. And there was Carla Körbes, still in the corps yet limpidly beautiful in the classical roles she is only occasionally permitted to dance, in the mime role of The Countess. The unfairness colors one’s view of Borree’s real, if limited, achievement in the role.

The rest of the cast was good. Nikolaj Hübbe, who danced Prince Désiré, frequently partners Borree these days (is his casting perhaps the reason for hers?), and he gave an account of the role that was physical and theatrical, if somewhat on a low flame in terms of its athleticism. The young Theresa Reichlen, as The Lilac Fairy, danced. . .alas, I can’t evaluate her here. She’s a student of mine at Barnard College this semester. (I can report, though, that she has been favorably reviewed in several roles this season by a number of my colleagues.) Kyra Nichols, making her debut as Carabosse, was all crouching tiger-hidden dragon, a lively and persuasive account of the evil that gets the plot going, though one based on anger rather than mythic fury. In the Wedding divert, Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar, as The White Cat and Puss in Boots; SAB student Anjelica Fellini and Christian Tworzyanski as Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf; and Austin Laurent, Allen Pepper, and Aaron Severini as The Court Jesters seemed, to my eye, the performers who gave the more joyous performances, although Carrie Lee Riggins and Adam Hendrickson, as Princess Florine and The Bluebird, were fascinating in an odd way, not soaring but flying under the radar.

Photos: (all by Paul Kolnik)
First:  Jenifer Ringer and Philip Neal in Peter Martins' production of The Sleeping Beauty.
Second:  Maria Kowroski, as the Lilac Fairy, and Philip Neal.
Third:  The Jewels pas de quatre: Amanda Edge, Charles Askegard, Ashley Bouder and Pascale Van Kipnis.

Reviews of other Winter Season performances:

Some thoughts on Balanchine, with references to Arlene Croce (Gay Morris)
Prodigals, Gods, and Music: "Heritage" Week 1 at New York City Ballet (Susan Reiter)
Harlequinade (Nancy Dalva)
Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2/Harlequinade (Mary Cargill)
Double Feature (Mary Cargill)
The Show Goes On: Donizetti Variations/Scotch Symphony/Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 (Mary Cargill)
Designs that Pack a Punch:  Jewels (Susan Reiter)

Swanilda's World (Mary Cargill)
New Casts in Jewels (Mary Cargill)

Also Mindy Aloff's Letters related to the Balanchine Celebration:

Letter 14 (Balanchine Celebration; Times Talk)
Letter 15 (Midsummer Night's Dream)
Letter 16 (Double Feature)
Letter 17 (Barefoot Balanchine at Sarah Lawrence)

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 8
February 23, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff



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last updated on January 11, 2004