Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, CA: March 3, 2015
American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie said that he wanted to mark the company’s 75th anniversary season with an iconic new “The Sleeping Beauty”, and he meant it. ABT’s spectacular new production (its fourth since 1976) premiered on March 3 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, with Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes in the lead roles—and the world hasn’t seen anything like it since 1890.
Lovingly restored and beautifully reimagined by Alexei Ratmansky, ABT’s resident choreographer, and co-produced by Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, this “Beauty” transports the audience back to the Imperial Mariinsky Theater by way of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Determined to revive Marius Petipa’s original choreography for that first production, Ratmansky and his wife, Tatiana, pieced together the fairy-tale steps from Stepanov-encoded records that were smuggled out of revolutionary Russia and preserved in the Sergeyev Collection at Harvard University.
Ballet was different then. Still richly informed by the Baroque, it featured the expressive footwork that is sadly underemphasized today, a low passé position, extensions that rarely reached 90 degrees and rounded port de bras that softened the ballerinas’ corset-stiffened posture. Indeed, modern audiences might wonder when stratospheric jumps and septendecuple pirouettes will appear in this production — they never do (turns rarely go past double). Nineteenth-century choreography draws from a subtler artistic well, and McKenzie took a courageous, even radical, risk in mounting a production that is nearly devoid of the circus tricks that define so-called classical dance these days. Happily, the opening-night audience responded ecstatically, suggesting that there is a place in the modern canon for good old-fashioned ballet.
We all know the story — the curse, the sleep, the kiss. Told here in a century-old movement style, it was conveyed by accomplished acting as well as measured deployment of the steps, a combination that is all too rare in the current era. Vishneva exuded Aurora’s wide-eyed wonder as well as a technical mastery that was especially compelling in the adagio and allegro of Acts II and III; there is so much expectation attached to the Rose Adagio that even though she danced it finely, the meticulous ronds de jambe en l’air, emboîté and double en dedans piqué turns (with the working leg in coupé rather than retiré) that came later seemed lovelier by virtue of being unexpected.
As an ardent Prince Désiré, equally enamored with Vishneva and her Aurora, Gomes demonstrated the long-lost nobility of the danseur noble. Arms out and hands open to the audience in the Baroque fashion, he delivered a courtly variation, rich in épaulement and sprinkled with entrechats into double tours in coupé and low, buoyant leaps. Both he and Vishneva showed delicate lower-body precision, period-perfect carriage and an elegant showmanship that invites the audience into the performance. Watching it truly felt like stepping back in time — I found myself wishing they’d installed faux gas footlights to complete the illusion.
If this “Beauty’s” choreography is deceptively understated, its sets and costumes outdo the wildest imagining. For inspiration, Richard Hudson (who also designed ABT’s 2010 “Nutcracker” and 2011 “Dumbarton”) turned to Leon Bakst’s designs for the Ballets Russes 1921 version, called “The Sleeping Princess”. Hudson’s economical sets suggest palatial grandeur, a formal French garden and a lakeside with water that shimmers under James F. Ingalls’ dynamic lighting. But the columns, coffered ceilings and topiaries are merely frames for the costumes, which deserve star billing alongside the principal dancers.
Dripping with color, draped in lace and brocade, plumed with ostrich feathers and radiantly bejeweled, they conjure a fantasia of 17th- and 18th-century French court dress, layered with abrupt color contrasts and folk motifs that recall “Le Sacre du printemps”. Clad in red tights, emerald-green jackets and tam o’shanters, the young violin pages were the most startling, and adorable, example. This pastiche may seem at odds with Ratmansky’s focus on authenticity, but hey, that’s why they call it artistic license.
Other than the costumes for ensembles, no two garments are alike. Every gentleman’s coat is tailored from a different brocade and embellished with tassels, ropes and silvered lace sleeves under massive buttoned cuffs and worn over vests, jabots, breeches and metallic slippers. Each noble woman wears a unique ensemble of petticoats; a robe à polonaise or à l’anglaise with fringes and gathers; and a bodice with a sparkling stomacher. No accessory was spared, from velvet capes and gold-embroidered trains to magnificent wigs, aigrettes, tiaras, tricornes and Breton-style lace headdresses. Even Carabosse (Nancy Raffa) gets a fabulous makeover, depicted in ebony velvet and silver glitter, with a pallid visage and a salt-and-pepper fright wig, she is a black-and-white villain in a technicolor epic.
The most startling anachronism is the style of tutu worn by principal, soloist and corps ballerinas. Heavily layered, knee-length and singularly unflattering, they take some getting used to. That said, they are essential to the time-traveling fidelity of this production, and are as fantastical as the period costumes in their drapery, appliqués and finery.
But the greatest garments of all—and the most towering wigs — are given to the queen (played on opening night by Tatiana Ratmansky herself). Etiquette dictates that no guest should upstage the bride, but her Act III gown is simply so spectacular, so opulent, so…big…that it gets its own round of applause. I won’t be surprised if ends up with a Twitter handle. Over the top? Absolutely. And absolutely wonderful.
As King Florestan XIV, associate artistic director Victor Barbee nearly matched the grandeur of his consort; Alexei Agoudine made a fine Catalabutte, though a slightly more vibrant costume would have been more in character. After an unsteady Lilac Fairy variation, Veronika Part guided the story with the command of a Roman goddess (in her case, a less garish costume would have been more appealing). Sarah Lane’s effervescent Miettes qui tombent and Stella Abrera’s Violente stood out among the fairies, which included Devon Teuscher, Misty Copeland and Skylar Brandt.
As the Diamond Fairy, Isabella Boylston ushered in the wedding festivities with flicks of the hand and refined footwork. Isadora Loyola and Sean Stewart charmed the audience with their White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, while the Ogre (Richard Bowman), cleaver in hand and baby parts spilling from his boots, chased Hop o’ My Thumb (the button-cute Chase Marcot). There’s always a pair of wedding guests who commandeer the dance floor at a wedding reception, and in this case it was Cassandra Trenary as Princess Florine and Daniil Simkin as her Bluebird; their sparkling chemistry and crystalline interpretation of the music nearly stole the show.
Ormsby Wilkins, ABT’s music director, conducted the Pacific Symphony in Tchaikovsky’s resplendent score. Subsequent Auroras and Désirés will be Gillian Murphy and Alexandre Hammoudi; Hee Seo and Cory Stearns; Paloma Herera and Denys Nedak; and Isabella Boylston and Joseph Gorak.
With this new-old version of “The Sleeping Beauty”, ABT and La Scala have given the ballet world a historic, entertaining and magical gift, perhaps even an iconic one. If opening night’s standing ovation and repeated curtain calls are any indication, it will be received with joy and gratitude.