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The Royal Ballet: Sleeping Beauty

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Royal Ballet Weaves Its Meticulous Spell (Washington Post, June 24)

John Rockwell, Reviving 'Beauty' With Old-School Poise and Reserve (New York Times, June 24)

Jean Battey-Lewis, Dusty Royal gems polished (Washington Times, June 24)

Philip Kennicott, 'Beauty' Reawakened (Washington Post, June 21)
During his 60-year career Marius Petipá choreographed more than 100 ballets. Only a few of them (La Bayadère, Don Quixote, Raymonda, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake) survived the test of time and formed a core of the current classical ballet repertoire. Created in 1890, Sleeping Beauty is Petipá’s crowning achievement and one of the greatest ballets of all times. Set to Tchaikovsky’s music, it is based on Charles Perrault’s fairytale La Belle au Bois Dormant, a story of a cursed princess who falls asleep after pricking her finger on a spindle and is kissed and awakened by a prince one hundred years later.

Sleeping Beauty is a showcase and an ultimate test for a ballet company. Beauty is not easily achieved: its grand staging comes with a big price tag; and its extremely challenging choreography requires the finest dancers. It’s an unattainable dream for many dance troupes and each (successful) new production is a cultural event in the ballet world.

The Royal Ballet has been on a quest for its own Beauty since 1939. The most recent attempts to resurrect the famous ballet ended unhappily, a 2003 production of Natalia Makarova was doomed as “too Kirov” and Anthony Dowell’s 1996 modern staging as plain “ugly.” Nevertheless, the company was determined to bring the magic back. This time the management decided to play it safe, choosing to revisit the popular 1946 version based on Oliver Messel’s stage decorations and Frederick Ashton’s additional choreography. Last week the Royal Ballet unveiled this new-old Beauty at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Photograph by John Ross /
(Photograph by John Ross /
After the roaring chords of the short overture subsided, the curtain rose on the Prologue, revealing the King Florestan’s Palace and members of the Royal Court preparing for the christening of newborn Princess Aurora. The stage decorations (arches, colonnades, staircases, and a mountain view painted on a blue backdrop) didn’t quite convey the regal splendor of a Royal Palace… more the two-dimensionality of a Windows Screen Saver. Ladies of the Court dressed in huge and elaborate dresses and topped with oversized wigs looked extravagant, not elegant. What surprised the most was the lack of vibrant colors in Peter Farmer’s newly created costumes. Pale blue and beige hues dominated the set. An excessive use of pastel colors gave the new staging a faded appearance. Cattalabute, the King’s master of ceremonies, clad in a dark green velvet suit with a hat reminding me of a nest with a white bird in it, looked like a character from another story altogether.

It is the curse of a second night’s performance that it is traditionally handed to a second-string cast. The Royal corps’s maidens in the beginning of the Prologue weren’t quite together, not an uncommon sight that night. Ballerinas’ heads and feet moving in different directions coupled with muddled sounds coming from the orchestra pit set a mood matching the gloomy sets right from the start. The cavalcade of good fairies with their cavaliers following brought a welcome change in the color scheme. Isabel McMeekan as the Lilac Fairy rescued the dancing part. She was a centerpiece of the party, dancing with grace, eloquence, and vigor. The arrival of the Wicked Fairy Carabosse in a dead-crow cart powered by six giant rats was rather more grotesque than ominous. Dressed in a long black sparkling dress, Genesia Rosato as Carabosse (the character role often performed by a male) was eccentric and bizarre.

Photograph by John Ross /
(Photograph by John Ross /
In the first act the audience finally got to meet the Princess. With a beaming smile, Roberta Marquez was the happiest Aurora I have ever seen. She was all charm and joy. Her performance was technically assured, but she danced in a way that was notably careful and self-conscious, as if her main goal was to execute each element by the book. Her balances in the famous Rose Adagio were steady-state. She gracefully moved from one suitor to another without a glimpse of hesitation, keeping a statuesque posture in each arabesque. (I only wished she paid more attention to her maybe-husbands.)

After the first act the performance finally took off. Imaginative designs and beautiful dancing in the Vision Scene of the second act brought some magic to the production. A charismatic dancer with an impressive virtuoso technique, Federico Bonelli gave a solid portrayal of Prince Florimund. He partnered Aurora with assurance and elegance. Young and exuberant, Marquez and Bonelli made a beautiful couple; their passionate duet in the enchanted forest was not only danced agreeably but acted very well, too.

The ballet culminates in the wedding of Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund. The festivities begin with a parade and divertissements of well-known fairytale characters. Little Red Riding Hood (Caroline Duprot) was particularly memorable not only for her enticing performance but also for the bright red cloak. Brian Maloney as the Blue Bird spent most of his solo in the air, demonstrating his ability to fly; Bethany Keating was a charming White Cat, flanked by Jonathan Howells as Puss-in-Boots. The glorious grand pas de deux of the lead dancers followed by the nuptial ceremony concluded the evening satisfyingly.

Whether this sort of Beauty appeals to you will depend on your expectations from the genre. The glory of the past can’t quite be recaptured – but good dancing will assuage those who expect classical ‘classical ballet’.

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