Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY; May 29, 30(m), 2015

Jerry Hochman

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty Photo Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty
Photo Gene Schiavone

Everything old is…old again.

Well, not quite everything, but Alexei Ratmansky’s new staging of The Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre is a puzzlement. Many aspects of it are at least interesting, and at best wonderful – and after a second viewing, these predominate. But these same changes, together with others that are more are problematic and a plethora of unfortunate staging and costume choices, sacrifice a contemporary sensibility, as well as a contemporary sense of classical and period style, in favor of a starched, ‘authentic’ one. That is, a lot of it just looks old-fashioned.

A great deal of ink has been spilled discussing Ratmansky’s intent. Reportedly, he wanted to reproduce the ballet as originally choreographed in 1890 by Marius Petipa based on contemporaneous written observations, recalled recollections, and a more extensive notation record than might have been anticipated. But not all of the original could be reconstructed, and whether for that reason or because he felt some changes were necessary, Ratmansky added some ‘additional’ choreography.

Exactly what ‘additional’ means is not clear, but I care less about a production’s pedigree then its intelligent transmittal of the original intent; so that when attending a classical ballet that is not a modification in story-line, time or venue from the standard, I feel as if I’ve seen a reasonably faithful reproduction of the original’s classical style, but not necessarily one preserved in aspic. It’s more important that a production looks and feels alive, and is exciting to watch – and in this production, although there’s a lot for an audience to appreciate, there’s little to get excited about.

Most of the choreography seems to have been modified to one degree or another from other extant versions, with the result being a more stylistically restrained look – particularly for Aurora and Prince Désiré, and the fairy variations in the Prologue. Many of these changes are intriguing, including more intricate and wickedly complex footwork for Aurora, Prince Désiré, and in the Prologue, for the Lilac Fairy. It looks less powerful, but more sophisticated. And along the way, Ratmansky has eliminated some particularly dull dances, provided many more featured role opportunities for soloists and corps dancers, and created a Garland Waltz that is miraculous in its complexity and ingenuity.

The Sleeping Beauty Photo Gene Schiavone

The Sleeping Beauty
Photo Gene Schiavone

But much of the changed ‘new’ (or ‘old’) choreography is almost too subtle to notice, and also tends to look mannered and overly detailed, which converts ‘sophisticated’ to ‘fussy’ (though, to a degree, the level of fussiness depends on the dancer). This makes an already long and somewhat dull ballet feel longer and duller than it really is. And the absence of bravura technical highpoints (not to be confused with acrobatic ‘tricks’) that audiences have come to expect as appropriate, if not essential, classical style, are gone. For example, there are few soaring leaps, pointework has been reduced, and much of whatever speed was present in prior versions has been slowed. Indeed, other than the Rose Adagio (which remains relatively unaltered but for some unfortunate staging changes that reduce opportunities for nuance and texture), the only example of choreography that encourages more than de rigeur audience response occurs in the Grand pas de deux, when Aurora executes two backbends en pointe, one of them unassisted, that are superb examples of simple but sophisticated choreography combined with performance wizardry.

The staging, though somewhat crisper than in prior versions, doesn’t help. There’s no magic in Carabosse’s entrance and exit in the Prologue (though the essential acting histrionics remain); and instead of his/her minions looking like insects, as in the prior version staged and choreographed, after Petipa, by Kevin McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland, and Michael Chernov, here they are a few mini-Carabosses (same witch’s face, just tiny), whose main function appears to be to make certain that Carabosse, the big one, doesn’t trip over her costume train, and some not-very-frightening Rats who in a previous life might have been Mice in Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker.

Marcelo Gomes as Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty Photo Gene Schiavone.

Marcelo Gomes as Prince Désiré
Photo Gene Schiavone.

While Act I is fairly standard, that glorious Garland Dance crowds the stage like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and the four Princes (suitors) are allowed to just wander onto the stage with nothing to do except look sheepish and lost and wait for Aurora to show up (the McKenzie/Kirkland/Chernov version integrates these Princes into the Garland Dance, which was a far superior way to handle their entrance).

Act II is generally staged well and moves expeditiously – though, not surprisingly, there’s no longer the antelope charge (that powerful series of coordinated leaps) by Prince Désiré and his friends at its beginning to invigorate the audience – but it includes the unnecessarily silliness of an arrow magically emerging from a target bulls-eye after Prince Désiré releases the string of his bow.

In Act III, the parade of fairy tale characters seems never-ending, and culminates in a contrived happy ending in which Carabosse is not only a welcome attendant, but is presented as equivalent in importance to the Lilac Fairy – one sister fairy is beautiful and good, the other homely and desperately in need of a competent cosmetician. Maybe Ratmansky has in his sights a new Broadway version of Wicked.

What makes this incarnation of the story look even fussier than the choreography are cosmetic distractions. The ballet should be about the choreography and the performances, but the sets and costumes provide the ballet’s first impression. The scenery by Richard Hudson is glorious – museum quality; and it enhances the action by not competing with it for attention. And the set (and lighting by James F. Ingalls) for Aurora’s hidden forested sleep area is an incalculable improvement over the prior production.

However, and with some exceptions, the costumes, also by Hudson, are…strange. Many should be carted off to a museum where their museum quality and presumed historical authenticity can be displayed. I suspect as much effort went into creating (or recreating) them as was spent on reprogramming the choreography, although Hudson indicates that they and the sets were inspired by Leon Bakst, which would date the models for them to Ballet Russes. Regardless, perhaps they’ll grow on me – although the hair cylinder atop the Queen’s head is unlikely to. It looks as if Carabosse’s beehive hairdo from the McKenzie/Kirkland/Chernov production was simply recycled and covered with matted hair.

Sarah Lane as Princess Aurora and Herman Cornejo as Prince Désiré Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Sarah Lane as Princess Aurora and Herman Cornejo as Prince Désiré
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

On May 29, Gillian Murphy’s performance as Aurora was very fine in every respect, but although she executed everything correctly (and completed the Rose Adagio), her extraordinary balances were more tentative, and her characterization was lost in apparent concentration on executing the fiendishly difficult choreography – which only emphasized the choreographic fussiness.

As Prince Désiré, Marcelo Gomes was Marcelo Gomes. That is, he was impeccable in every way, on his own and as Murphy’s attentive partner – although Murphy is so secure and centered that there seemed little for him to do.

Next afternoon, Sarah Lane looked breezy, youthful, and much more comfortable with the choreography when she was on her own than Murphy appeared to be, and she executed the choreographic complexity effortlessly, making it look far less intricate than it is. But she was not as secure in her partnered turns, relying much more on her partner, Herman Cornejo, to keep her centered. In the Rose Adagio (which she has completed successfully previously), she fell off pointe briefly during the pass from the third prince to the fourth, but more than compensated with those backbends in the Grand pas. For the first, she bent her back almost parallel to the stage floor (far deeper than Murphy), to audience gasps. And the second time, unassisted, was as deep as the first, and defied belief. Unless there’s some hidden means of support, I have no idea how she pulls it off, and makes it look graceful and effortless at the same time.

Cornejo did a superb job with the modified solo during the Grand pas, even though his costume made him resemble Napoleon, but played Prince Désiré too much like the dullest knife in the drawer (similar to his portrayal of Franz in Coppélia) when he tried to find and then awaken the Sleeping Beauty. And although he’s become a reliable partner, he had more difficulty keeping his ballerina centered than usual, and he wisely abandoned the one-handed partnering for many of the stationary turns in the Grand pas (which I initially thought Gomes had included just to show off) after the first one went awry.

Cassandra Trenary as Princess Florine Photo Gene Schiavone

Cassandra Trenary as Princess Florine
Photo Gene Schiavone

There was one serious miscalculation, Saturday. Lane and Cornejo replaced the usual Grand pas fish-dives with what Ratmansky has indicated are more correct reproductions of the original choreography. Like the other changes Ratmansky has made, it looks more intricate and sophisticated (and perhaps more difficult to pull off), but fish-dives are what audiences expect to see. Eliminating them, and doing so just for Lane and Cornejo (even though they’ve executed them successfully before), makes them appear less competent than others. It was a poor decision.

Among the plethora of featured roles, Stella Abrera (May 29) completed the difficult choreography that Ratmansky provides for the Lilac Fairy’s solo in Act I, and in other respects performed admirably, but Devon Teuscher appeared more comfortable with the choreography on Saturday. The ‘Canari qui chante’ fairy remains the audience favorite, but, as with the other fairies, Ratmansky has tweaked the choreography to make it more complex – the fluttering hands, for instance, have been moved higher and closer to the mouth, so the fairy appears to sing rather than just look cute. Skylar Brandt and Cassandra Trenary delivered excellent Canary Fairy portrayals.

As Princess Florine and Bluebird, Abrera and Blaine Hoven executed the modified choreography quite well (much improved from the prior ABT version) on Saturday, as did Trenary and Daniil Simkin on Friday, but Trenary is an enchanting as well as highly competent dancer, and her Princess Florine was particularly radiant.

Daniil Simkin as the Bluebird Photo Gene Schiavone

Daniil Simkin as the Bluebird
Photo Gene Schiavone

On Friday, Isabella Boylston danced the Diamond Fairy (the lead among four ‘gem’ fairies in Act III) dynamically, with a high voltage level and angularity that suits her well. It was excellently done. On Saturday, Brandt danced the same role glittery, but with soft edges and Romantic arms that made the dance look completely different, and equally fine.

Friday’s White Cat, delivered by Elina Meittinen, was much more animated and ingratiating than the version on Saturday, and although Cinderella and Prince Fortune are superfluous, if their variation had been omitted I would have missed the fine portrayal of Cinderella on Friday by Courtney Lavine, and the superb one on Saturday by Katherine Williams.

But the most fabulous portrayal of all was Craig Salstein’s Carabosse on Friday. He was animated and vicious and every inch the scary fairy. As she did in the previous production, Nancy Raffa’s portrayal on Saturday was kinder and gentler, but in this production, stronger is better. On Friday, Salstein also accomplished, if not a Cecchetti double, then a Salstein double: in addition to Carabosse, he portrayed Galifron, Prince Désiré’s Tutor, in Act II, and did so with equal vigor.

I suspect that Ratmansky’s version of The Sleeping Beauty is somewhat of a work in progress, and that some changes will be made to restore some of the technical highpoints and encourage audience involvement (that is, to earn sustained applause). As with many Ratmansky ballets, it may take some getting used to, and will look better over time (as it did between my first and second viewings). Regardless, this is a lovingly restored production, done with obvious intelligence and attention to detail, and should be seen. The second part of its run this season will begin June 8, and run through June 13.