BWW Review: Pennsylvania Ballet's SLEEPING BEAUTY
Occasionally, we go to "Sleeping Beauty" muttering under our breath, "I've already seen it 10,00 times. Yet another." We get to our seats and wait for the overture to begin. Some of us know the score so well that we could hum it along from memory. Like all great music, it remains lodged in our innermost brain, as much a part of our defining personalities as our IQs. The orchestral leader enters; we can look at our watches, tap our feet, look around the auditorium. Is there someone I know? And then the brass, the cymbals. We switch to a receptive mode. The Lilac Fairy's theme starts, and we are transformed yet again to the magic realm of this iconic ballet. It never fails. It is a ballet that continues to enthrall us; it's great and can't be labeled. It's there-and always will be. Lucky for us!
Premiered in St. Petersburg on January 15, 1890, at the Mariinsky Theatre, the ballet has become a repertory staple in just about every ballet company the world over. Choreographed by the fabled Marius Petipa, it has gone through a number of changes over the years, so it is always something of a mystery to figure out who did what and what the latest choreographer/ballet master has added. So while there is the what I call a "sacred dance text" for "Sleeping Beauty," there is the unofficial "let's have a go at the choreography and change it around and add a dollop on what I think will work." Which is a good way to describe the Pennsylvania Ballet production, which I saw on the afternoon of October 22, 2017, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
Angel Corella, Pennsylvania Ballet's Artistic Director, has undertaken a massive task in mounting the ballet. Setting "Sleeping Beauty" on any company needs time to make sure everything, music, dancers, coaching, can gel to produce a ballet worthy of a 19th-century masterpiece. You just can't put it on the stage and expect it take on a creative life all its own, especially when time is money. This is just not a problem with Pennsylvania Ballet; all companies can derail when "Beauty" is on the agenda. Style pervades, and its inflections are felt in everything that follows. Individual dancers and set pieces are important, but an overall effect of tranquility and harmony must be achieved by the time the orchestra plays the last note.
Judging from the performance, it seems that more rehearsal time was needed. Coordination was off between orchestra and dancers, and dancers and steps. Tempos, as in most productions I have ever seen, were ill-judged. I always ask myself, why does the orchestra play slowly and solemnly in the famous fairy variations in the prologue? Yes, we know that the dancers are showing off their extensions, but if they are portraying purity, generosity, passion, couldn't they move as if these were not gifts of doom, but instead a future living vitality for the infant princess? The dancers were fine, but the movement dragged, adding even more time to an almost three-hour presentation.
Then there is Aurora, one of the most passive characters in all ballet history. I recently saw a blog posting where the author said, I believe, that she would not want her young daughter to grow up with Aurora as a role model. True, for the 21st century mindset she may not provide a defining character for young women to emulate-she doesn't initiate anything, everything happens to her, she's not a CEO, just a ballerina who has to prove technique, not MBA skills-but let's not forget that Aurora is a creation of the late post-romantic 19th century. She may be a princess to the throne born, but her prince rules the court. And no, I haven't forgotten Catherine and Victoria or even the Duchess of Duke Street. But they weren't appearing in a ballet. And while Tchaikovsky's music does call for a ballerina of powerful technical wattage-it is also representative of poise, grace, and serenity. You can change the character, but you can't alter the music. That's a given.
Lillian DiPiazza, who danced Aurora, is a dancer I admire, especially in Balanchine roles. However, her presentation of Aurora was tentative. She probably needs more rehearsal and coaching, all of which I understand, but you don't, and shouldn't, let a dancer perform the role who does not have quite the artistry or technical aptitude that the role requires. The "Rose Adagio" was very wobbly, where eloquence and resolute technical steel are required, as well as a projection that every time she rises on pointe it is not just her artistry, but her portrayal of female maturity that must be felt. The third act wedding celebration's famous fish dives were off the mark; the partnering with Ian Hussey was seriously undermined by what seemed like a confusion on both dancers parts to merge with the music. I sometimes leave "Sleeping Beauty" wondering if anyone is listening to the orchestra pit.
As Prince Desire, Ian Hussey, was noble, even if the role gives him little range. Alexandra Hughes was the Lilac Fairy, her role expanded in the prologue, with little stage time left after that. Samantha Dunster might have been an excellent Carabosse, but as before, the orchestra did not supply the speed or baleful color that the character requires. And why can't someone devise clear, simple and expressive ballet mime for Carabosse? It can't be that difficult.
I came away from this "Sleeping Beauty" neither bored, nor moved, chagrined that a great deal of talent had been lost, yet, for some inexplicable reason, happy that I had the experience. For, if nothing else, and this is probably the biggest accolade one can give to "Sleeping Beauty," the music, which is now 127 years old, will be heard in another 127 years, long after we have all passed away. It is a testament to Tchaikovsky who, despite his own unhappy life, was able to create such affirming music. Melody after melody flows on-how could one individual compose this? One word: genius. And whichever way you pull it, "Sleeping Beauty" has musical genius, something that is not bestowed by any fairy.
Photograph: Alexander Iziliaev