BWW Review: New York City Ballet's SLEEPING BEAUTY
When Aurora makes her first appearance in SLEEPING BEAUTY, the audience usually sits up-there's a murmur, an anticipation. THE STAR is here, and she's in charge for the next two hours. And THE STAR had better be ready. The audience is watching her every move, not to mention her every mishap.
Sterling Hyltin was dancing Aurora on the evening of February 15th 2017. An outstanding dancer in the Balanchine and Robbins repertory, Hyltin poses a problem. She is not a star dancer. She doesn't scream out, "World here I am." And without that persona, the dancing passion that propels the greatest Auroras, there is no SLEEPING BEAUTY. Ballet companies present SLEEPING BEAUTY the world over, and they are always faced with the same problem. Who dances Aurora? Yes, she has to be technically competent, yes she has to have charm and grace. But does she project star wattage? Is she a Judy Garland of the ballet world? If so, she has to transcend radiance. We read about ensembles, where everyone is equal. Here I beg to differ. Aurora is a constellation, a zeitgeist. That is why she will be forever associated with Margot Fonteyn. Watch her on Youtube. You know that when she puts her foot down, the world's problems will disappear. There are now two generations of audiences who never saw Fonteyn. What a pity. All I can say is go find out just what Fonteyn brought to the part. You'll be surprised.
The biggest surprise was that THE star dancer of New York City Ballet, Sara Mearns, was relegated to the small but important role of Carabosse, the evil fairy. Why? With her natural beauty, stature and acting ability, I assumed that Mearns would have been a natural choice for Aurora. I'm sure there are others who could argue otherwise, but Mearns is, in my opinion, THE company star. Mearns couldn't dance the "Rose Adagio?" I'll bet she can.
SLEEPING BEAUTY is a large undertaking. The company performing it has to be sure that it's on an even footing, not only with dancers, but costumes, scenery and music. Tchaikovsky's score is notoriously difficult to play, and since orchestras usually get little rehearsal time, there are usually some notable mishaps. There were times when the brass section seemed totally out of sync. However, the tempos were well judged, especially for the fairy variations. Usually played so slowly that the music snaps from a lack of tension, here it swiftly moves ahead, but not so fast that the dancers can't keep pace. I was especially taken with Meagan Mann as the Fairy of Courage, performing the finger variation and tackling all the intricacies that it presents with great aplomb, never falling over or getting her finger signals crossed. She was most impressive.
Savannah Lowery, by looks and temperament, should not have been an ideal Lilac Fairy, but, being a very persuasive performer, did what a really intelligent dancer would do. She made the role fit her. I have always been fascinated by Lowery's dancing, finding it lush with a grand sweep. In every role she has danced she has been impressive, and this was no exception.
Lowery towers over everyone in the court, and while most of us perceive the Lilac Fairy as somewhat regal and small of star (yes, I know 6' Beryl Grey was a star Lilac Fairy), Lowery's fairy could scare the living hell out of Carabosse. Here's a performance where evil and good fairy balance and play off each other, leaving an audience to wonder who would win this duel of wills. To be fair, I really enjoyed Mearns, although totally wasted, and Lowery having a go at each other. I wonder if there is another ballet where they could dance adversaries?
(Just as an aside, Mearns also plays the Lilac Fairy at other performances, never Aurora.)
Chase Finlay played Prince Désiré with commitment, but the part does not offer scope for his considerable dancing gifts. The prince does not get that much stage time, so in the future I'd like to see the company offer Chase more latitude for his partnering and dancing skills. Ashley Issacs and Harrison Ball performed the Bluebird variation with distinction, although I found Ball, at this point in his career, to lack stage presence. Indiana Woodward and Cameron Dieck were funny cats (they're usually not), and Joseph Gordon, Teresa Reichlen, Alexa Maxwell and Emilie Gerry performed the jewels quartet with great assurance. Gordon seems like a potentially excellent partner, but having Reichlen tower over him was not quite a bright idea. Couldn't they have found a shorter woman?
SLEEPING BEAUTY is a ballet that transcends all eras, even dancing styles. Besides offering a great star vehicle for the leading ballerina (and that's exactly what it is), it tests a company's overall ability to offer an array of good manners, deportment and demeanor. While City Ballet is not quite known for its presentation of full-length classical ballets, I would say that, putting aside my reservations, the company should take great pride in this production. It has paved the way for the full length SWAN LAKE and LA SYLPHIDE, already audience favorites. While City Ballet will be known as Balanchine's company, the 21st century will be posing new challenges. Just where should it go? There are others complaining that the company has no reason to take on the responsibility of presenting classical ballets. I say just the opposite. It has to keep developing as a premier company not only for new works but re-introducing the classics according to its unique style.
What will the future hold? I'm just as curious and excited as you are.
Photo: Paul Kolnik