Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University, New York, NY; May 16. 2014

Jerry Hochman

Logical expectations color what one sees in a performance. Although productions must be judged by relatively uniform standards, whether a particular performance is successful is a function of many variables, not the least of which is the company’s level of experience. For example, one doesn’t approach a high school production of a Broadway show with the same expectations that one might have of the original. Similarly, one doesn’t approach a performance of a classic ballet by a company in operation for only a year with the same expectations one might have seeing a production of the same ballet by a company in operation half a century or more. With that in mind, and by any reasonable set of standards, Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” which I saw at its premiere is a remarkable accomplishment.

This is a ‘real’, professional production, not one pasted together with amateur dreams and equivalent skills. And it’s classily classical. By that I mean that although it’s ‘after’ Petipa and obviously classical in style, it’s not a reproduced 19th-century relic. It has a contemporary sensibility, not only because its dancers are so young and inexperienced, but because it moves at a more contemporary pace. It’s not perfect – I had some concerns (primarily the quality of the recorded music, and the acting that, with the exception of Carabosse, should have been more fully developed), but in the overall scheme of things, these concerns, though real, are minor.

What resonates most about this production is it audacity. As was evident in its repertory program this past winter, co-Artistic Directors Michael Chernov and Ms. Kirkland have high standards. Accordingly, this “Sleeping Beauty” has the ‘look’ of a full-scale, opera house production, but within the confines of the considerably more intimate 670-seat (approximately 400 in the 10-row, two-aisle orchestra, and 270 in the balcony) Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University, it has the ‘feel’ of a ‘chamber’ ballet where the audience doesn’t so much watch the action as is transported into it.

And the production is believable. The costumes, designed by Mr. Chernov, are extravagantly appropriate, and with one exception (the Prologue backdrop) the sets, designed by Mr. Chernov and Katherine Fry, are both glorious and ingenious. While the cost involved likely was less than that for a major company’s presentation, this production doesn’t look threadbare or limited to essential expenditures. On the contrary, these sets, including Act II’s moving panorama, are noteworthy examples of intelligent conception and execution.

Equally important is the staging by Ms. Kirkland and Mr. Chernov. Every image in every scene presents a fantasy tableau, with each scene capable of being memorialized, image by image, into a richly illustrated, illuminated, and treasured storybook. There is surface similarity here to the current American Ballet Theatre production (also co-staged by Ms. Kirkland and Mr. Chernov), but without its bells and whistles and artistic excess. For example, Carabosse here looks like a wicked witch rather than a cross between a beehive and the bride of Frankenstein, her minions no longer resemble spidery insects, and the forest isn’t littered with scary skeletons.

I’m sure liberties were taken with the choreography (additional choreography was by Mr. Chernov and Alexandra Lawler), but with the exception of a Garland Dance that took too long to get into gear, the tonnage moved with grace and speed. I found Act I to be particularly impressive, including a beautifully staged Rose Adagio. Act III’s Wedding Celebration contains many of the usual fairy tale dances and makes no concession to contemporary sensibility with respect to Red Riding Hood and the Wolf – but here it looks inoffensive and all in good humor. Even the Prologue, a weak point in many productions, sparkled as the dancers, including the fairies’ attendants as well as the fairies themselves, filled the stage with wide-eyed enthusiasm.

Of equal significance to the production’s staging is its sense of choreographic style. Here, the stylistic unity displayed from featured dancers to the corps (composed primarily of students from the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet) is quite exceptional. And unlike the company’s staging of its “Raymonda Suite” this past winter, the drilling does not appear to have been overdone. On the contrary, the performance looked remarkably unregimented – particularly in light of the use of a recorded score. Indeed, although dancing to recorded music can be a double-edged sword (there are no surprises in the tempo, so dancers can rehearse to the same beat repeatedly until they get it right; but there’s also no margin for error since there’s no way for the recording to adjust), here the GK Ballet dancers seemed unfazed one way or the other: they executed flawlessly, even ‘covering’ the occasional wayward feather or bouquet without missing a beat.

But the recorded score also represented one of two deficiencies. Using a recorded score in performances in New York is nothing new: companies with greater performing experience and considerably wealthier benefactors have frequently performed in New York without live orchestral accompaniment. In this economy – in any economy – it’s a necessary evil, and a relatively benevolent one. But here, whether the cause was poor orchestral execution or an inadequate audio system, this recording failed to do justice to the glorious Tchaikovsky score.

But the quality of the recording, annoying as it was, did not have a negative impact on the dancing. While I didn’t consider the dancing to be spectacular, that means less to me, certainly at this level, than getting the steps right and providing the audience with a rich visual experience. And in this respect this company did a fine job – nothing stood out as being beyond anyone’s capabilities; indeed, all the featured dancers did what they were supposed to do adequately as well as zestfully. This is not feint praise: this is a company comprised of dancers with no established pedigree (at least none that was trumpeted) and bodies that, generally, don’t fit the standard ballet body image. Consequently, their accomplishment, and that of their coaches, is all the more extraordinary.

But there are trade-offs that may be inherent in whipping a group of heterogeneous dancers with names that sound like a United Nations roll call into a cohesive and coherent company, at least at this early stage. Here, that trade-off was evident in those roles that called for characterization beyond executing the steps correctly. In this respect, and based solely on this premiere performance (characterization often develops only when inexperienced performers reach a particular comfort level), work still needs to be done.

Dawn Gierling’s sweet and age-appropriate Aurora was danced at a high level, particularly with respect to the Rose Adagio and the post-pricked finger ‘mad’ scene, but her facial expression was relatively bland and fixed throughout – an understandable manifestation of opening-night jitters that was not fatal to her performance, but it’s an area for improvement. Johnny Almeida’s Prince Desire was a stalwart companion, but he seemed more full of himself (as he was in “Raymonda Suite”) than taken with his princess – although his partnering was attentive and competent throughout. And India Rose’s warmly generous Lilac Fairy, though danced securely, lacked vivacity.

There were exceptions, the primary one being Eva Janiszewski’s Carabosse. Ms. Janiszewski, a student in the GK Academy Professional Training Program, danced memorably in every respect. The stage came alive whenever she was on it. Cute-as-a-button Kyono-Chantal Morin (also in the Training Program) delivered an engagingly fake-fearful Red Riding Hood (aided by apprentice Ritchel Ruiz’s sheep in wolf’s clothing). Katia Raj and Alexander Mays danced a lively Cat and Puss in Boots, and Katrina Crawford and Samuel Humphreys were a regal King and Queen even though, in this production, their roles are diminished and there’s little for them to do beyond looking regal.

Among other featured rules, Anastasia Barsukova excelled as the Fairy of Joy and Anderson Souza was an admirable Catalabutte, and together they danced a strong Bluebird pas de deux (with Ms. Barsukova a particularly vibrant Princess Florine). And Nicole Assaad, a company apprentice, did a superb job in her roles as the Fairy of Charity in the Prologue and as the Diamond Fairy in Act III.

Ballet companies must start somewhere, and this was the third production in GK Ballet’s inaugural season. That fact alone makes this production of “Sleeping Beauty” particularly impressive – a little miracle in lower Manhattan. While GK Ballet’s “Beauty” may not yet be ready to challenge its bigger and more experienced cousins, it reflects extraordinarily high standards, and is already a formidable addition to the New York ballet landscape.