"The Sleeping Beauty," based on a French fairy tale published during the reign of Louis XIV, was premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in 1890, and famously revived by Diaghilev in 1921. With such a briar of historical context it is easy for productions to lose themselves in aesthetic, or droop into prosaic self importance. ABT's "The Sleeping Beauty," premiering this season, vaults through the ballet's historic baggage. Director Alexei Ratmansky's production takes what could easily be stale imperialist propaganda and ushers it forth as a study in humanism.

The classic plot is very simple. The king, rejoicing in the birth of his daughter Aurora, invites six faeries to serve as godmother at her christening. The evil faerie, Carabosse, enraged that she was not herself invited curses the girl to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. The Lilac Faerie, Aurora's principal godmother, intervenes, promising that Aurora will not die but sleep for a hundred years. Not entirely satisfied with this, the king issues a mandate that all such spools will be forbidden in the kingdom. Sixteen years later, while attempting to convince Aurora to choose a suitor, Carabosse finds her way to the court giving the princess a spindle, promptly pricking he finger, and the spell takes hold. A century later, the prince Desiree is in the countryside, refusing the advances of all his suitors. His Godmother, the Lilac Faerie, informs him of the slumbering kingdom with the sleeping princess. They set forth to the kingdom where he kisses Aurora, who instantly awakens. They marry and the Kingdom rejoices in their nuptials.

Choreographically, this "Sleeping Beauty" is a detailed study of balletic tradition. Ballerinas chaîné on relevé, rather than on pointe. Arms are softly held and pirouettes are often brought to coupé. In no way does this leave the audience shirked of balletic prowess. The noble grace of the dancers is undeniable; even their most pedestrian walk is performed with a structural confidence. Decked in royal garments and skyscraper headdresses, the regal king and queen, and especially Christine Shevchenko as the Lilac Faerie, wouldn't be out of place as statues in the gardens of Versailles. "The Sleeping Beauty" displays a rare world where those in power are vitalized by kindness and grace. Such a display of those in power as being wholly good often comes off as indoctrinating, but the world which ABT constructs convinces that these particular rulers represent the best of humanity.

The Prologue introduces the individual faeries in a charming pageant. Usually more complex in composition and characterization, these faeries seem to rely on their costuming and Tchaikovsky's infectious music to present their individualities. Zhong-Jing Fang as the Canari qui chante is an easy crowd favorite, decked in yellow and bursting with a clown like joy. This is mirrored by the act three entrance of fairy tale classics such as Cinderella, Puss in Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood. In these, as with the whole production, aesthetic maturity wins the day. Gemma Bond as Cinderella and Nicole Graniero as Red Riding Hood are archetypal presentations of beloved characters, while maintaining the rustic charms of the Grimm's Fairy Tales. There isn't much in the way of conflict in "The Sleeping Beauty." Marcelo Gomes as Carabosse is an enchanting stage presence, though never a terrifying one. He and the mice entourage following him are a charming dilemma to the happy ending, which the audience walks in reassured will happen.

Isabella Boylston's transformation as the princess Aurora is spectacular. While her first act demeanor might make her type cast as a romantic-comedy best friend, her dance unveils a ruler who conquers the overflowing stage. She makes Princess Aurora personable and warm hearted. This inner power is made manifest on a regal exterior for the third act. Her grand pas de deux with Joseph Gorak, as Prince Desire, exalts the optimism of noble love with brilliant fish dives. Mr. Gorak, dressed appropriately in relatively loose court attire rather than tights, performs his portion with spectacular intonation.

Richard Hudson's design is sublime. He borrows heavily from Diaghilev's Ballet Russes revival, with designs by Bakst. Such inspiration is fitting, though some anachronisms float to the surface. The set structure conforms to variations of neoclassical single point perspective. The space transforms from the great hall of an imperial palace, to sculpted gardens, to a romantic forest. Certain elements of the Faeries' costuming might lead audiences to recall the Matisse cutouts at the Moma, or, in the redundant palate of the aristocracy, the meticulous aesthetic of Robert Wilson. Whether this pleases or distracts is probably more telling of the viewer than the design success. For myself, there are certain elements that don't become folded into the timelessness. In particular, the metallic fabrics often come off as tacky instead of ethereal.

With so much dramaturgy and research, Ratmansky secures the piece's heritage most firmly in the sculptural work of Petipa and Tchaikovsky's enrapturing music. Reaching three hours in length, the production is never dull. It doesn't command attention through stunt work but instead with an endless supply of charm, dignified grace, and optimism. In the final rapturous tableau the performers present themselves to the audience, ushering us into their perfect kingdom.

Photo Credit: Gene Schiavone

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From This Author Wesley Doucette

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