New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
February 24, 2023
The Sleeping Beauty
New York City Ballet completed its two-week, 14-performance run of Peter Martins’s The Sleeping Beauty, and its Winter 2023 Season, last Sunday. I’d expected, as I did during this ballet’s prior runs in 2019, 2017, and 2015, to view several different casts and report not only on the ballet itself, but on the execution by the various featured dancers. But things don’t always go as planned, and as it turns out I was only able to see one program during this run: the Friday, February 24 performance. So although more developments of note, including role debuts, took place during the two week season, I’m not able to opine on them in this review.
The performance I saw, however, did include some performances of role debuts that had taken place earlier in the run. Most significant of them were Chun Wai Chan, who was Prince Désiré to Tiler Peck’s Aurora, Ashley Hod as Carabosse, and Emma Von Enck as Princess Florine.
I’ve discussed Martins’s production many times, so my comments here with respect to the production itself will be brief. Familiarity with the basic story, derived from Charles Perrault’s 17th Century story, “La Belle au bois dormant,” which itself is derived from stories that date from the 14th Century (and probably long before that), is assumed.
This production, which premiered in 1991, does not alter the story’s atmosphere: it is the fairy tale that audiences expect it to be. That’s not to say that it’s a copy of other ballets derived from Petipa’s original. On the contrary, Martins, likely with input from George Balanchine while he was alive, takes liberties with the entirety of the “standard” Sleeping Beauty ballet adaptions. Not surprisingly, the exposition has been trimmed to speed things up and eliminate unnecessary excess, with the goal being to keep the visualization of the story from slowing to a crawl.
To me, the modifications/ deletions work. The production proceeds inexorably, but far more expeditiously, to its already-known conclusion. For example, gone are the king’s attempts to rid his kingdom of spindles in order to avoid Carabosse’s curse, and much of the terribly boring introductory portions of the “vision scene” – like the nobles’ dance and the game of blind man’s bluff – have been removed. As a result, the production moves at a faster than usual pace twice over—from the speedier NYCB-pace of dance in general, and from the absence of relatively insignificant segments from the narrative. Little of the “feel” of the story has been lost in the process. On the contrary, the emphasis is on the story’s essential narrative.
A major reason for this production being as audience-friendly as it is is derived from the sets, including projections of the castle and neighboring areas that gradually widen or narrow in scope depending on the focus of the story at a particular time during scene transitions. As a consequence, Martins’s The Sleeping Beauty proceeds not only like the fairytale that it is, but like a fairytale story book, page by page. [The projections are not separately credited, but the sets, presumably including the projections, were designed by David Mitchell, abetted by lighting designed by Mark Stanley.]
I’m generally satisfied with this production, but there are some concerns. Although I disliked Alexei Ratmansky’s current production for American Ballet Theatre because of its museum-accurate and museum-limited authenticity, some – if not most – of the choreography in that version soars. One doesn’t find that here. The choreography in general is uninspired – particularly the fairy variations, which don’t have anything near the crispness evident in other productions. Also, little but important details have been removed or executed perfunctorily (e.g., Aurora’s tossing the bouquet of flowers at the feet of her parents rather than gently and lovingly; appearing to dance the fairy variations without the context of bestowing gifts on the infant). And, for the first time (perhaps as a consequence of my viewing position), this performance seemed unusually busy and confined. Accordingly, I suspect this production is best seen from a location above the orchestra.
More significantly, opportunities for character development are relatively limited. This, too, might be a consequence of Balanchine’s vision and, perhaps, the belief that the characters are what they are and any characterization beyond that is excess. But this limits the ballet’s effectiveness, at least after seeing it on many occasions over the years. With a couple of glaring exceptions, the performance I saw this year is an unfortunate example of that.
I saw and reported on Peck’s Aurora in 2019 (and perhaps prior to that), in contrast to other Auroras I saw that year. Her execution, including her remarkable control of time, remains impeccable, and the audience seemed appropriately dazzled – even though limited to some extent by the unusually rapid-fire pace of the score on this occasion. But, as was the case in 2019, characterization simply wasn’t there. Her demeanor was the same at the beginning, when she’s supposed to be a 16 year old, as it was at the end, when she was crowned Queen. Regal she was, but a princess, in character, she wasn’t.
On the other hand, Chan’s Prince was superb. His emotional reaction to Peck’s Aurora, as well as to Ashley Laracey’s Lilac Fairy, was as it should have been. He even managed to look credible during the pre-kiss exchange where he asks the Lilac Fairy what he should do, and she tells him, in effect, “Dummy, this is a fairy tale. Think”: one could see the lightbulb go off in his noble but somewhat dimwitted head. And his execution of the Wedding Scene’s pas de deux was equally superb. Notably, during his solo he was behind the music for a bit (this was his last performance in the long run, so a hint of fatigue would not be unexpected), but he caught up and finished with a flourish and spot on the beat.
Hod debuted in the role of Carabosse on the second night of this run, and since then has had plenty of time to get acclimated to the role. While Martins’s Carabosse is considerably less scary and venomous than others, and not at all ugly (or hideous – as in many other versions), what Hod displayed in terms of evil character was more than sufficient, and more in line with those iterations of the original fairy tale that suggest (or declare) not just that Carabosse is an evil fairy, but that she was a good fairy and Aurora’s real mother, once beautiful, who agreed to provide the barren king and queen with a child and then turned furious when she was subsequently spurned. [See, e.g., Matthew Bourne’s incarnation of the story, presented by New Adventures here in 2013.]
Laracey’s Lilac Fairy was well-executed and somewhat less bland in her “goodness” than others I’ve seen in the role. Indeed, she provided at least a semblance of animated character in her dialogues with the Prince and with Carabosse. Be that as it may, even though the Lilac Fairy eventually wins in the story, in this “characterization” battle of the Ashleys, Hod won.
The evening’s greatest disappointment was Bluebird. Originally scheduled to be danced by Von Enck and Roman Mejia, both of whom premiered in these roles the previous week, Mejia was replaced, perhaps at the last minute, by KJ Takahashi, who had debuted in his role the previous night with a different partner. Von Enck danced Princess Florine quite well throughout, with a refreshingly buoyant spirit, and Takahashi was satisfactory in his solos. But, perhaps because of a lack of rehearsal time or simply due to limited partnering experience, he was unable to keep the feather-light Von Enck straight through any of their partnered pirouettes – indeed, at times it appeared that he pulled her off center. The best that can be said of his partnering performance is that he didn’t let her fall to the floor. Be that as it may, Von Enck glided through the situation apparently unfazed.
The remaining Act II variations were more successful. Harrison Coll, who debuted in the role the previous week, danced an excellent Gold, and Emily Kikta, Sara Adams, and Baily Jones did fine work as Diamond, Emerald, and Ruby respectively. Kristen Segin and Alec Knight (another late replacement) danced The White Cat and Puss in Boots delightfully, without overdoing the inherent variation’s inherent humor. Andres Zuniga, Christopher Grant, and especially Daniel Ulbricht were the celebratory Court Jesters. [Ulbricht, who continues to defy age, might have made a better late replacement for Mejia as Bluebird.] And Stella Tompkins and Lars Nelson charmed their way through Little Red Riding Hood, with little Ms. Tompkins, a young student at the School of American Ballet, being especially endearing (and commendably navigating her way through the ballet’s complex finale). Indeed, all of the SAB students in the performance (including those in the Balanchine-choreographed Garland Dance), danced with exceptional confidence and sparkle. Earlier, in Act I, the five Fairies (in performance order: Olivia Boisson, Nieve Corrigan, Miriam Miller, Lauren Collett, and Alexa Maxwell) executed their variations admirably, with Miller particularly outstanding as the Fairy of Generosity. And keep an eye open for Collett, who I first was able to identify in a performance by Tom Gold Dance a year or so ago, and who here did nice work as the Fairy of Eloquence despite the score’s breakneck speed.
Finally, my primary concern during the 2019 run of The Sleeping Beauty remains a concern now. That is, the failure to take casting chances with younger dancers in favor of those with greater experience is potentially dangerous to the company in the long run as well as a disservice to NYCB’s regular audiences (as opposed to those seeing the production for the first time). There is no reason to me, beyond the financial consequences of additional rehearsal / coaching time, why additional ballerinas were not given opportunities to assay the role. [Like other evening-length or quasi-evening-length ballets, The Sleeping Beauty sells well regardless of casting.]
I can think of several Soloists and Corps dancers who have earned the opportunity to dance the role, and who would look authentically youthful as Aurora without having to act it. Even if any of them doesn’t yet have the strength or expertise to reliably handle the Rose Adagio, that’s not a reason for saving them for two or three more years when The Sleeping Beauty next awakens – perfection, whatever that is, is elusive at any level: even more experienced ballerinas occasionally fall off point or noticeably rush it. Had each of the four ballerinas who were given three performances each instead been given two each, two more ballerinas could have been cast, giving them the performance experience these opportunities provide while also enabling the audience to watch them grow and giving the company a leg up on future growth.
After season’s end, and to further cement the changing face of NYCB that I recognized and commented on several years ago, NYCB announced the promotion of four Soloists to Principals: LaFreniere, Emilie Gerrity, Mira Nadon, and Roman Mejia. Congratulations to all.
NYCB’s six-week Spring, 2023 season begins April 18, and ends on May 28.