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A Fairies' Tale

American Ballet Theatre's 'The Sleeping Beauty'

by Jerry Hochman

June 14, 16 evening, and 19 evening -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

American Ballet Theatre’s current production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” with ‘additional choreography and staging by Kevin McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland, and Michael Chernov,’ premiered at the Met on June 1, 2007, and was reprised the following year with some relatively minor tinkering. This year’s presentation, which has just completed a week-long run at the Met, includes further modifications.  While the production still maintains its welcome modern pace within the essential Petipa framework, the new changes are noteworthy.  I’ll get to them later in this review.

First, however, a regret.

Unfortunately, I was unable to see Alina Cojocaru’s Aurora at yesterday’s matinee performance. The last time I saw her dance was the last time she appeared with a company in New York (in July, 2004, with The Royal Ballet in a performance of “Cinderella”). In my review of that performance, I complained of feeling cheated because Ms. Cojocaru's visits here had been so infrequent. But six years between New York engagements is far worse, and inexcusable.

Ms. Cojocaru’s stage persona has an engaging sweetness to it, coupled with impeccable technique, and when I last saw her she awakened memories of Lis Jeppesen. [Those of you who may have seen Ms. Jeppesen with the Royal Danish Ballet know the performing quality to which I refer.] I’m told by reliable sources that Ms. Cojocaru’s Aurora was “great.” I don’t doubt it. And I hope that ABT brings her back again soon, and frequently.

But I was able to see Natalia Osipova’s debut as Aurora.

Ms. Osipova had the great bad fortune of being mugged near Lincoln Center earlier last week.  She did not fight back, which was a wise decision (although I’m convinced, having seen her steel legs, that she could have inflicted serious damage to them if she had), and whatever injury she may have suffered was minor and did not appear to affect her performance in any way. But it was ‘great’ bad fortune in that now everyone in New York, and possibly the rest of the country, has heard of Ms. Osipova. And it seemed as if they all attended last night’s performance – the place was packed.

ABT’s press release indicates that this was Ms. Osipova’s first performance as Aurora. I find that difficult to believe, but if it’s true, it makes her debut all the more remarkable. While not perfect, whatever that might mean, it was nevertheless very memorable, and very good.

Ms. Osipova played it straight. By that I mean that she didn’t embellish the choreography by appearing to leap into orbit or spin faster than she should have or hold balances longer than they should have been held (at least, not so frequently that she appeared to be showing off). Adding her own virtuosic impact to the role will come over time (and, with time, perhaps the conductor will be able to gauge her pacing better).

Technically, it almost goes without saying that Ms. Osipova was sublime. Aside from a bit of perhaps nervous hesitation in the critical section of the Rose Adagio where she balances en pointe in arabesque and is promenaded by each suitor – she wasn’t as rock-solid as, for example, Gillian Murphy was at Monday’s performance – she executed the rest of the Rose Adagio, and the entire remainder of Act I, exquisitely.

As I’ve observed previously, Ms. Osipova needs to rein in her tendency to overdo the acting and particularly the emotional facial gestures – and the open-mouth ecstatic ‘wow’ that she often displayed during Act III was unnecessary and annoying. But for this performance those lapses were exceptions. Overall, she was able (particularly in Acts I and II) to vary her acting so as not to show any single permanently-engraved facial expression.

However, she made great use of her acting prowess, without unnecessary embellishment, during the post-spindle-prick portion of Act I. She turned the reactive dance into a sort of ‘mad scene’ (perhaps a ‘how could-that-nice-old-lady-do-this-to-me-omg-what’s-happening-to-me-I-feel-really weird’ scene would be a more appropriate, albeit more cumbersome, description), turning those few seconds of pre-coma dancing into a fabulous little vignette – unquestionably the most dramatic and most successful mini-performance of that mini-scene that I’ve seen. To this viewer, her interpretation elevated the scene to a higher level of significance, and her performance of that little scene has now become the standard by which I will measure others.

I expected her partnering with David Hallberg to be a mismatch. I was wrong. Mr. Hallberg, as I’ve written previously, is a particularly engaging Prince Desire, and his performance last night was even better than it was in 2007. Boyishly ebullient and confident, he perfectly nailed every leap and turn. And his partnering was attentive and considerate – he is that rare apparently self-absorbed danseur who has developed the skill to partner effectively but unobtrusively – which is exactly the type of partnering that Ms. Osipova, who tends to dance better on her own that with a partner – might be able to rely on. While I don’t sense any particular chemistry between them, surprisingly that is not critical in “Sleeping Beauty” where, most of the time, the two of them are essentially doing their own thing.

The performance was complemented by Michele Wiles’s Lilac Fairy, and by the ‘Bluebird’ pas de deux of Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin. As I’ve previously observed, Ms. Wiles does a superbly animated Lilac Fairy, and her performance on the 19th was even better than I remember. It’s a role she’s clearly very comfortable with, and it’s a welcome respite from her less sympathetic characters. Ms. Lane’s Princess Florine and Mr. Simkin’s Bluebird were smoothly and engagingly executed by both. It is a natural consequence of the choreography for this pas that the Bluebird gets more attention than Princess Florine, and that was the case on the 19th (as well as when the two of them danced these roles earlier in the week). But Mr. Simkin’s Bluebird was truly extraordinary – even more so considering it was his debut in the role. Simply put, his Bluebird was perfectly executed in every way, as well as exciting to watch. [I held my breath, though, at the end of the coda when Ms. Lane jumped onto him and he carried her offstage – his hold looked precarious at both performances. Mr. Simkin has much better control of things when he only has himself to control.] The evening’s Carabosse, Maria Bystrova, was virtually unrecognizable with the frighteningly ghoulish make-up. But she performed the role well, and needs only to improve her timing.

Ms. Murphy’s Aurora, at Monday’s performance, and Veronika Part’s Aurora on the 16th, were as finely performed as they were when I saw them dance these roles three years ago. Ms. Murphy is more than an exceptional technician; her acting is refreshingly understated. She doesn’t have to show off what she can do, or how she’s feeling – she just does it. But I did notice for the first time that, during the Rose Adagio, she seemed to pull her shoulders up while maintaining her balances. Since, technically, Ms. Murphy never appears less than perfect, this was surprising. Perhaps it was the result of my view of the stage from where I was sitting.

As her Prince, Jose Manuel Carreno displayed his usual strong partnering skills, and still turns to perfection. But, to this viewer, he was a relatively detached Prince – one who perhaps had been a bachelor for too long.

As good as Ms. Osipova and Ms. Murphy were, however, my preference of the three I saw was Veronika Part. Ms. Part had a tougher time on Tuesday than I recall from her previous Auroras; she was clearly working very hard (which I subsequently learned may have been the result of an injury). But her most significant quality, to this viewer, is the expansiveness of her movement quality, which she displayed to perfection as Aurora. Ms. Part uses her arms expressively and lyrically, seemingly stretching every gesture beyond possible limits. The result is a graciousness to her movement that seems to invite the audience in. She’s not showing off – she’s dancing for us.

And with a Prince of the caliber of Marcelo Gomes, it’s difficult not to have a superb performance. While not the most aristocratic of princes, Mr. Gomes is always profoundly real. And in addition to doing whatever he was supposed to do with panache, he also does it, as I’ve previously observed, with an infectious gleam in his eye. For example, the orchestra frequently, and hopelessly, overled the dancers at the three performances I saw (like a quarterback who leads the pass receiver too much). But Mr. Gomes was somehow able to adjust his speed and, incredibly, ‘caught the pass’ – and ended the sequence with a special celebratory flourish, as if to declare that he’d overcome the challenge, beaten the conductor and, as usual, was in complete control. It was such a gloriously and characteristically ‘Gomes’ moment that several audience members within earshot joined me in an under-the-breath laugh of recognition. It’s one of those ‘little things’ that Mr. Gomes does that make his performances so consistently memorable.

The Bluebird and Princess Florine for this performance were Sascha Radetsky and Isabella Boylston. Both performed admirably. I find Ms. Boylston to be a very interesting dancer – she doesn’t appear to be constrained by conventions. By that I mean that where many Princess Florines I recall seem to have frozen characterizations, Ms. Boylston is very real, and almost mercurial, and she moves with a sense of controlled abandon. In short, she’s not a cookie-cutter dancer (and her quality of appearing not to take things too seriously I find engaging). Though she needs to develop more clarity and technical security, she’s so much fun to watch that it almost doesn’t matter.

At each of the performances, Karen Uphoff was a perfectly aristocratic but accessible Countess. I recall the late Jennifer Alexander bringing life to this ‘minor’ role during the 2007 series of performances (and also recall finding Prince Desire’s melancholy difficult to understand, given Ms. Alexander’s attractive accessibility). Ms. Uphoff dances the role to a similar effect. And the dynamite choreography for the Prince and his friends that opens Act II was enhanced by the performances of each of the four sets of friends. Also noteworthy were all of the Fairies, but particularly the Fairy of Charity of Renata Pavam, who consistently dances with impressive crispness and clarity (Charity was also beautifully executed by Leann Underwood on the 19th), and Yuriko Kajiya’s Fairy of Joy on the 14th. Ms. Kajiya doesn’t need to do much to make the role come alive – she can just do the choreography and the joy comes naturally. You can’t help but smile whenever Ms. Kajiya dances. Luciana Paris and Christine Shevchenko danced the same role on the 16th and 19th, and both danced it well, but they needed to act the part (and Ms. Shevchenko was technically superb, but needs to work on the ‘joy’). Attention also must be paid to Gennadi Saveliev, who seemed to be everywhere on the 14th and 16th, carefully partnering, and protecting, each night’s Aurora.

And then there is Nancy Raffa, who portrayed Carabosse on the 14th and 16th. I remember Ms. Raffa well from her early dancing career with ABT. A former Prix de Lausanne Gold Medal winner (the first American to do so), she was one of ABT’S most accomplished dancers, and one of its most idiosyncratic. But I was unprepared for how good she was as Carabosse. Now an ABT Ballet Mistress, Ms. Raffa was in total command of her character, and of the stage, whenever she appeared (which alone doesn’t make her so different from the other wonderful ABT Carabosses). But she didn’t need to overly rely on make-up – she was very recognizable to me, and the fact that she wasn’t buried in paint made her the most beautifully bad and lusciously evil of the Carabosses I’ve seen. One could almost see how she had perhaps once been a beautiful fairy like the others, but had somehow fallen from grace. A fallen angel of a wicked witch fairy. Super.

Finally, back to the beginning. When I first reviewed this production, I confessed to liking it a great deal. But I recognized what I saw as some problems. The current revisions, to a large extent, have addressed these concerns.

Princess Florine is no longer brought on stage in a cage (I had observed that if either of them should have been caged, it was more appropriately the Bluebird). But the cage itself is now gone, and the cuteness of having a caged character is completely gone as well. The audience's introduction to the Bluebird and Princess is now more ‘open,’ but it has lost something that made it fun. Bring back the cage – and put the Bluebird in it – just long enough for the Princess to release him.

In Act II, the exciting introduction to the Prince and his friends seemed to gnash unnecessarily with the ‘aristocratically boring’ festivities. And I thought that Prince Desire’s melancholy was overdone, serving only to slow the pace. It’s possible that I’ve just gotten more used to it, but this distraction is now gone, and – though still jarring – the transition into the scene, and the scene itself, moves more realistically, and certainly more quickly.

Most importantly, the “spider” trap in Act II has been significantly changed. Although it had been tinkered with during the production’s second year, it now has been completely reimagined. In connection with Carabosse’s attempt to prevent the Prince from reaching Aurora, the previous staging had the spider contraption downstage right, from which at various times either the Prince or Carabosse was entangled. And eventually, Carabosse became hoisted by her own petard, and, to my recollection, expired enmeshed in the web. The scenic plot is still the same, but the effect has been watered down considerably. Gone is the downstage web. Now the web is moved back toward the castle wall, as if preventing entry. Carabosse still gets entrapped in it, with help from the Lilac Fairy, but now she melts into it to her death. [But if the Lilac Fairy could simply have wiggled her finger and made Carabosse disappear, why didn't she do it sooner?] The result is a confrontation scene that is more distant, and perhaps less scary to children. I reserve judgment as to whether it’s an improvement.

There probably were more changes that I’m not as certain of. [Do the princes still march through the garlands as the Garland Dance begins? I thought that was an inventive touch, but I don’t recall seeing it in the current incarnation.] Regardless, the fact that the piece is still being played with is a good thing. Overall, it’s one of the better Sleeping Beauty productions I’ve seen, and I look forward to its return – perhaps with more tweaking. [Could you get rid of the skeletons trapped in the curtain? It still looks like a wayward section of a movie set from Indiana Jones, and, worse, that the Lilac Fairy had previously selected other one-true-princes who didn’t make it to the promised kiss, and was forced to settle for her fifth or sixth choice.]

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