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Ratmansky Takes On 'The Sleeping Beauty'

Scene from The Sleeping Beauty, American Ballet Theater (photo by Gene Schiavone)

One of several revelations in Jennifer Homans's beautiful book Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet was the line drawn between the classical ballet of our age with the court ballet of the French ancien régime. In Russia that continuity lasted up to a work like Marius Petipa's choreography for Tchaikovsky's music of The Sleeping Beauty. Premiered in 1890 in St. Petersburg, the ballet is set in an absolutist court like Versailles, and it even featured an appearance by a dancer costumed as Louis XIV in its Act III apothéose, a tableau pairing him with Helios, the god of the sun. After the Russian Revolution, Soviet authorities quietly removed all such glorifications of aristocracy and royalty, while still presenting Petipa's ballets to the world as "authentic" recreations of his work. Alexei Ratmansky has finally given the world something much closer to Petipa's original vision, in his new restoration of The Sleeping Beauty, made for American Ballet Theater's 75th anniversary season, which the company brought to the Kennedy Center Opera House on Wednesday evening.

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Tchaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty, Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice), A. Mogrelia
(Naxos, 1994)
This approach lies somewhere between preserving a moldering corpse, as in the Mariinsky Ballet's version with Diana Vishneva seen in 2010 and the Royal Ballet's adaptation by Frederick Ashton seen in 2006, and the radical updating of Matthew Bourne's vampire version with New Adventures seen in 2013. Ratmansky learned Stepanov notation, used in the 19th century to write down choreography, to get as close as he could to Marius Petipa's original steps, and Richard Hudson based his designs on the version of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes by Léon Bakst. The burden of a considerable budget, reportedly around $6 million, was shared with La Scala in Milan. Ratmansky has stated that his goal was not purely that of historical reconstruction -- the Sun-King does not appear at that musical fanfare in Act III -- but to reveal what Marius Petipa's ballet was really like. If you would like to find out, see one of the performances this week.

Other Reviews:

Alastair Macaulay, Ratmansky’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ Has Premiere in California (New York Times, March 10, 2015)

---, ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ Reawakened by American Ballet Theater (New York Times, May 31, 2015)

---, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ Spurs American Ballet Theater to Work on the Details (New York Times, June 15, 2015)

Marina Harss, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ Awakes to Vibrant Ballet Costumes (New York Times, May 28, 2015)

Sarah L. Kaufman, ABT’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’: Amazingly, this fairy tale becomes a love story (Washington Post, January 29, 2016)

Sadie Dingfelder, American Ballet Theatre brings a lush new ‘Sleeping Beauty’ to D.C. (Washington Post, January 28, 2016)

Joan Acocella, Ratmansky's Beauty Wakes Up (The New Yorker, June 8, 2015)

Judith Mackrell, Ratmansky's royal flush: the most authentic Sleeping Beauty I've seen (The Guardian, September 30, 2015)
Most of the choreography's broad shapes are familiar from other Petipa adaptations, like the fluttering, flute-playing hands of the Canary Fairy variation, but the details of the moves are sometimes quite different, especially in the extension of legs and amount of time spent en pointe. The overall effect is to link the movements more closely with the music, revealing connections to Tchaikovsky's score that are often muted in other versions. Isabella Boylston's Aurora was spunky and coy, if not always with the balanced stillness the choreography requires, and the Prince Désiré of Joseph Gorak was somewhat nondescript. Ratmansky has not changed his mind about the musical cuts he made to the score, removing most of the Sommeil scene, which makes Act II seem disappointingly short and robs the Lilac Fairy (a fine Stella Abrera stepping in for the indisposed Veronika Part) and Désiré of some dramatic weight, as the rescue of Aurora is now oddly instaneous. The most significant (and unexpected) star power came in the terrifying Carabosse of Marcelo Gomes, with his hooked nose and clawed gloves, the choreography now matching his cackles and menacing gestures with each musical motif.

Further down the cast were more delights, including the adorable Canary Fairy of Skylar Brandt in Act I, and the exquisite vertical alignment of Christine Shevchenko's Diamond Fairy in Act III, matched by the strongly unified Gold, Silver, and Sapphire trio of Brittany Degrofft, Lauren Post, and Melanie Hamrick. The comic parts of the Fairy Tale divertissement are given new humor and buzz, especially the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots of Elina Miettinen and Gabe Stone Shayer. Cassandra Trenary and Daniil Simkin were a virtuosic pair as Florine and the Bluebird, with Simkin's strength and grace causing a sensation. The corps showed exceptional unity and precision in the large numbers, especially the ballet blanc vision of Act II.

Richard Hudson's sets and costumes are a pastel Rococo blast, replete with towering wigs, broad plumed hats, boots and other foot-ware. If you have ever wondered what a ballet tutu would look like with a bustle in it, wonder no more. Ormsby Wilkins conducted a mostly good performance of the score by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, including excellent violin and cello solos but with some misses in the horn section.

This performance repeats through January 31, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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