BWW Review: ABT's SLEEPING BEAUTY
Alexei Ratmansky's 2015 version of "Sleeping Beauty," based on the Stepanov notation of the original 1890 version, as well as Diaghilev's production in 1921, has always posed a problem for me. I saw it last year with a friend, and our reaction was the same: why do we need this new "Sleeping Beauty?" It's beautiful to look at, lavish to the extreme, but is there anything really new in this "Sleeping Beauty" that we have not seen before? With every new version of this classic we want to see the choreographer's mind and heart at work; why was this warhorse tackled again? What speaks to the soul, how can the ballet literally take wings and have us fly with it? That is the problem with "Sleeping Beauty." For all its beauty, it remains earthbound. It's better to read about than view. History is indeed interesting, but not at these prices, especially if you're trying to build a new audience as the baby boomers are now in their sixties and moving on. Who will take their places at the ballet, especially at these prices?
What's the best version of "Sleeping Beauty?" Probably the one in my head. There everything is true to form: the dancers, the scenery, the music, which is not mutilated. I have at least 15 versions of "Sleeping Beauty" on CD. Everything is perfect with the playing. I don't expect it from a live orchestra, but couldn't there be some coordination between violins, woodwinds, and brass in the orchestra pit? There's a funny story Agnes De Mille told about Diana Adams, one of the great Balanchine ballerinas, when she was rehearsing the original "Oklahoma." Adams was about to dance when she heard a glaring bad note from the orchestra and winced. That's very much how I felt when I heard the orchestra hitting one bad note after another. I know rehearsal time is costly, but the sound the evening I saw the production is not acceptable. We all know that most people come to see the ballet, not listen to the music. Well, think about what Balanchine said, "See the music, hear the dance." I saw the dancers, but didn't hear the music.
One thing I noticed this year was the costumes. Inspired by Leon Bakst's 1921 designs, they are truly magnificent, if lopsided. It's interesting to see what Bakst's take on the 1921 fashion scene may have been and how he utilized it for his new costumes. It's fun to see them, but for a production that cost 6 million dollars (when dance companies around the world are screaming poverty), my interest disintegrates quickly. The fairies, with their antennas, look as if they could dive right into Nijinska's "Le Train Bleu," whereas the Lilac Fairy's costume after the prologue would nicely fit the hostess in "Les Biches." (A note: Nijinska appeared as one of the fairies in the 1921 "Sleeping Beauty.") Maybe ABT would like to revive them? They wouldn't have to order new costumes.
Another problem, which I mentioned above, is the lack of virtuosity, very apparent in the famous Rose Adagio, which depicts the young princess blossoming from frightened teenager to mistress of all she surveys. The steps are changed, no longer does the point work build momentum as the music (weakly) swells. It's soft, dreamlike, and a Rose Adagio that does not explode with the balances is one that is not successful. You can say the same thing about the wedding pas de deux. Last year the fish dives were gone. Why? I've read that they were not in the original version and only added later, but the audience demands this virtuosity from the leading couple. The fish dives have returned, but they seemed tepidly performed; usually the audience bursts into shouts of approval. Here the response was somewhat muted.
In fact, the only burst of enthusiasm came in Act III with the appearance of Misty Copeland, partnered by Jeffrey Cirio, in the Bluebird pas de deux. If only the other dancers had received such a welcome! Gillian Murphy, as Aurora, has always been a strong technician who does not need to push her personality on an audience. But here, without employing her usual technique and adhering to the 19th century choreography (lowered extensions) imposed on her, she seemed unable to project any characterization. And without a star performance, "Sleeping Beauty" may as well be shelved away in the archives. Cory Stearns as the Prince and Stella Abrera as the Lilac Fairy were excellent, while Craig Salstein as Carabosse, went overboard with his mime. I only have to remember Marcelo Gomes and his performance as a comparison, which was truly menacing and vengeful. Salstein performed as if he were winking to the audience. Gomes was the real thing.
This "Sleeping Beauty" should be filmed for a Great Performance telecast. It would give the audience a chance to watch a history lesson in ballet lore and legend. But if you are looking for a "Sleeping Beauty" that does not emotionally bankrupt you, that touches the senses, while the music caresses one's sensitivity and compassion, don't go to this production. The emotional core is missing. Without that, there can be no beauty, literally.
Photograph: courtesy of Metopera.org