New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
February 14, 16 afternoon and evening, and 20, 2019
The Sleeping Beauty
Performances of Peter Martins’s staging, after Petipa, of The Sleeping Beauty dominated two of the final three weeks of New York City Ballet’s Winter 2019 season, from just before Valentine’s Day to well beyond. I saw four of the five different casts that were spread over the fourteen-performance run.
At the outset, I must recognize the three major role debuts I saw: Joseph Gordon’s Prince Désiré (opposite Lauren Lovette’s Aurora) on Saturday afternoon, and the double debut of Indiana Woodward and Anthony Huxley this past Thursday. Each performed magnificently – all the more remarkable because they were debuts. Huxley was as impressive as he always is on his own, and was a highly capable and solicitous partner; Gordon was the most impassioned, authentically love-struck Prince I’ve seen in a very long time; and Woodward, as she is wont to do, hit her Aurora out of the park. Improvements can be made, but under the circumstances they’re relatively insignificant. I’ll discuss all the featured performances, including many debuts in other featured roles, in more detail below. First, however, I’ll address this NYCB production, and why, judging from near sold-out houses and rapturous applause at each performance, it is as popular as it appears to be.
Two qualities in this production stand out: its classical balance, and its speed. The latter is not a surprise for any ballet in NYCB’s repertory, but the former may be.
Unlike what Martins did with his version of Swan Lake, his The Sleeping Beauty does not alter the story’s atmosphere: it is the fairy tale that audiences expect it to be. While liberties may have been taken with certain aspects of the production as Petipa choreographed it and as they appear in other Petipa-based versions of the ballet, they are done for a clear purpose – to keep the story from slowing to a crawl. And to me, these modifications have been made judiciously.
More significantly, and regardless of its pace, Martins has retained near perfect structural and visual symmetry. This may not be unusual for other companies, but for NYCB it’s noteworthy. Every action is focused stage center, and virtually every scene is impeccably balanced around that focal point. Even the number of characters appearing on one side or the other of the court scenes that dominate the production have, or appear to have, either the same number of characters or the same relative “stage weight’ where one character of greater position might visually offset a larger number of characters on the other side of the stage. It’s uncanny because it’s so consistent – the only time the sense of balance is lost is when it would not have been appropriate, as in the brief scene prior to the “Vision” scene, and the “journey” to the sleeping princess, which this production surprisingly interrupts with the ballet’s only intermission (and which, equally surprisingly, works – except for those obviously trained by an intermission following the “Spell”). For NYCB, The Sleeping Beauty may be its most classical, as well as its most sumptuous, ballet.
Even the relatively simple set (by David Mitchell), including the nifty advancing/receding projections that introduce the story’s obscure “hidden castle” venue and that later serve to visually record the passage of time, emphasize the overall ballet’s classical focus. My only complaint with the accoutrements of the production is the overly busy costuming for the king and queen, which make them look more “peasanty” than they should. [In other respects, the costumes, designed by Patricia Zipprodt, “authentic” or not, are lovely.]
The quality of balance serves a purpose beyond being classically consistent: it grounds the ballet in a viewer’s eyes. This version of The Sleeping Beauty has no rough edges, and very few potential distractions. A viewer always knows, or thinks he or she knows, where to look.
But good old-fashioned NYCB speed, even beyond the sprightly pace of Tchaikovsky’s score as the sublime NYCB Orchestra plays it, is the engine that makes this production run and which renders the production, classical as it is, anything but “old-fashioned.” At first I rebelled against this streamlining of the more familiar Petipa-based productions, but the result is totally consistent with Balanchine: pare the story to its essence; eliminate “dead spots” and “authentic” but dull choreography that necessarily slows the pace; and condense everything else. This is particularly evident in the usually pseudo-aristocratic “hunting party” scene that introduces both the Prince and the Vision scene (the equivalent, in this ballet, of the “standard” Petipa dream scene). There’s no “tutor” here to act as a comic foil, and no time is wasted showing how boring these nobles and their genteel activities can be. Faster than you can say “George Balanchine” the Prince rejects the offer to participate in the “blind man’s bluff” game that weighs down other productions, and immediately thereafter rejects an offer from his disappointed match for the afternoon, the Contessa, to join in a dance, instead telling her and the entire entourage that he prefers to be alone. The scene, which sometimes seems interminable in other productions, ends in a flash – and to me, nothing beyond authenticity, which I’ve often written is overrated, is lost.
More importantly, these parings never detract from the action on stage. The result is a fairy tale spectacle that moves, and that is difficult, if not impossible, to fall asleep watching. And there’s no loss of essential detail. With the exception of the brief hunting party scene, the earlier scenes, including the Rose Adagio, appear essentially intact, and the various wedding divertissements are there (though maybe not as many as in some other productions), and all superfluous detail is jettisoned. For example, there’s no battle between Carabosse and her minions and the Prince prior to Aurora’s awakening. I would have eliminated the mime prior to ‘the kiss” that makes the Prince appear to be the intellectual antecedent of Franz in Coppelia (Prince Désiré: ‘What do I do now?” Lilac Fairy: “Use your brain, dummy; this is a fairy tale; think!”). I would also, had I the opportunity, move to the beginning of the Wedding scene the solo for the Lilac Fairy that introduces the climactic Grand Pas – it makes the scene’s energy briefly stop dead. But you can’t have everything. And although the post-Wedding abdication of the King and Queen and coronation of Aurora and the Prince fits the music and adds a final sense of symmetry to the ballet as a whole, I don’t recall seeing it in any versions of the story, and the situation seems strange at best. On the other hand, it fits with the overall concept: in this fairyland, why waste time waiting for the King and Queen to die?
Where this production can be legitimately criticized is that, beyond classical balance and speed, there’s little here that might be described as ingenious, much less breathtaking. While I complained a great deal about some of the vaunted “authenticity” in American Ballet Theatre’s current production by Alexei Ratmansky, buried in the excess and the archaic were gems of choreography, nuance, and staging that this NYCB production lacks. That’s not to say that it’s void of invention (for example, Martins introduces some welcome off-beat movement into several dances during the Christening and Spell scenes; his Little Red Riding Hood divertissement, although in this day and age I question whether it should be there at all, is handled with genuine good humor; and Balanchine’s “Garland Dance,” with the addition of young dancers from the School of American Ballet, is both visually complex and delightful), but there’s not enough of it.
Be that as it may, all four of lead casts that I saw delivered magnificent performances that were virtually indistinguishable from each other, but very different from each other as well. By that I mean that they each, technically, did what he or she was supposed to do choreographically. To the extent any visible hiccups could be seen among the Auroras (as in the brief balances with each of the suitors prior to the Rose Adagio’s “main event”), it impacted them all to a greater or lesser degree, and was completely insignificant. Where the performances differed from one to another was in nuance and characterization. [The fifth cast featured Ashley Bouder’s Aurora, which when I last saw it was a precise, fully-rendered portrayal. I’ve not previously seen her Prince, Gonzalo Garcia, in this role.]
Peck has danced Aurora many times previously, but I’d not seen it. I caught up with her last Thursday, the day after The Sleeping Beauty began its run. Technically impeccable as she always is, Peck dazzled the audience, which justifiably roared its approval. Hers was the most technically accomplished and impeccably executed of all the Auroras I saw.
But to me, Peck’s characterization was disappointing, particularly in view of the superb portrayals she brought to her Odette/Odile two years ago. Although her demeanor during the Wedding scene was perfectly appropriate for a regal queen, her initial characterization during the “Spell” scene was no different: I saw no attempt to act like a 16 year old. And the nuances I would expect were not there. For example, during the Rose Adagio, she somewhat perfunctorily dumped the roses she’d received on the floor in front of the King and Queen, both times. So, although it had no impact technically, it was one of those rare occasions when I found Peck’s overall performance to be less than memorable. It’s possible that Peck intended her portrayal to be this way, because it perfectly complemented the always regal and exceptionally capable Tyler Angle as her Prince, but to me something significant was lost.
On the other hand, Sterling Hyltin’s Aurora delivered both the technical and the character aspects in the role. From the outset, she acted a 16-year-old girl, and included responses to her suitors that displayed a youthful reticence (similar to Juliet’s first encounter with Paris) that was not only appropriate in context, but refreshing. And in the Wedding scene, she matured noticeably. But the overall impact was dimmed, to me, by Russell Janzen’s Prince. Usually reliable in every respect, Janzen’s Prince Désiré, at least at this performance, lacked the ardor, the passion, that makes the role come alive. His execution was elegant, and his partnering was top notch as usual, but a relatively low-key delivery didn’t work.
Lovette’s Aurora Saturday afternoon wasn’t perfect, whatever that is, and was a degree less impressive than her extraordinary role debut two years ago, but that was hardly noticeable. She remains, to me, a perfect Aurora: naturally youthful, and totally radiant. That radiance carries from the Spell through the Vision scene into the Wedding. I would have preferred a greater sense of nobility at that point, but portraying youthfulness as a bride of a well-preserved 116 years is less of a concern than is looking and acting more mature than a princess should at 16.
Gordon, in his role debut, ignited the stage (and from the immediate reactions I heard, the audience), flying around the stage like a princely puppy in love for the first time, while exhibiting no diminution in technical quality – including partnering. To me, theirs was the best overall performance I saw.
This past Thursday, Woodward and Huxley were effectively on the same level. Woodward, who I first noticed in early 2013, soon after she joined the company (and described as reminding me, in terms of attack and overall impression rather than physical appearance, of former NYCB principal Nichol Hlinka), was, not surprisingly, the youngest-looking of the Auroras. But after the same initial balance tentativity that the other Auroras exhibited, she quickly found her confidence and delivered a near flawless technical performance, seemingly gaining strength as the evening progressed and one that, at least in the Spell scene, included the characterization and nuance one would expect. I look forward to her imbuing her Wedding scene with a more mature characterization, but as noted earlier, that’s a relatively minor quibble – the characterization in the Spell scene is far more important.
Huxley doesn’t appear to have a particularly regal demeanor, and his short stature sometimes makes partnering appear more difficult than it should. But none of these anticipated flaws materialized in his thoroughly developed and delivered Prince Désiré. He looked less puppy-ish than Gordon did, and far more serious, but in other respects delivered an equally ardent young prince, thoroughly captivated by the vision, and presence, of his Aurora. Technically, his execution was impeccable in every respect, and the partnering, even with little if any height differential, was exemplary (on a couple of occasions he didn’t keep Woodward completely centered, but he corrected this immediately and effectively such that only one looking through binoculars might have noticed anything even minimally awry). Overall, this was a very special double debut.
In other featured roles, in this production Carabosse has less to do than in others, which is unfortunate. Essentially, her role is limited to the Christening and Spell scenes. I’d not previously seen Gretchen Smith in the role, and her performance this past Thursday was a pleasant surprise. She started relatively weakly, and I thought she’d be too tame. Not so. At the appropriate time, she exploded with fierce eyes, biting gestures, and vivid silent screams and screeches – all the more effective because of the contrast with her demeanor at the outset. In the end, because of its novelty, it was the week’s best.
None of the other Carabosses was in the least deficient, but they were also less surprising. Maria Kowroski was every bit as vivid as Smith, and almost as exciting to watch. I admired Marika Anderson’s Carabosse previously, and her performance on Saturday afternoon was equally impressive. Sara Mearns handled the role as well as the others, but to me her demeanor was more deranged than evil – perhaps a distinction without a difference.
The Lilac Fairy is as pivotal in this production as it is in others, requiring, in addition to delivering the requisite choreography and crystalline mime, the demeanor of a benevolent goddess. Three of the four of the Lilac Fairies I saw (Ashley Laracey last Thursday, Miriam Miller on Saturday afternoon, Teresa Reichlen in Saturday evening’s performance) filled these requirements admirably. This past Thursday, Megan LeCrone, in her role debut, also executed the choreography clearly and crisply, but her appearance varied significantly. Essentially, when she remembered to smile, she was a credible Lilac Fairy; when she didn’t (which occurred far too frequently), she wasn’t. While the others need not have smiled constantly, with LeCrone, in this role, it’s a necessity. I mean to be constructive here, not critical. It’s not her fault, but when she doesn’t smile she appears austere, physically angular, even maleficent (and I use that word advisedly) – the antitheses of what’s needed here. And the black/red lipstick that LeCrone has worn frequently of late is a poor choice for her in general, but it’s a particular detriment for this role, since it draws attention to itself far more than it should and makes her appearance, when she doesn’t smile, even more severe.
It’s not reasonable to comment on all the other featured performances I saw, even all the role debuts, so my focus is on those that I found most impressive. On the 14th, Sarah Villwock and Baily Jones (in her role debut) excelled as, respectively the Fairies of Eloquence and Courage, as did Unity Phelan’s elegant Diamond and Erica Pereira’s vivacious Ruby. On Saturday afternoon, Diamond was portrayed less elegantly, but with considerably more excitement, by Claire Kretzschmar, in her role debut. She also danced the Fairy of Generosity at that performance, and on both occasions appeared so energized that her feet seemed barely to touch the floor. At that same performance, Emma Von Enck, in her role debut, danced a vivacious and impressive Emerald, and Emilie Gerrity delivered a delicate Fairy of Tenderness without the overly serious demeanor of others. In the Saturday evening performance, Huxley excelled as Gold, as did Laracey as Ruby. And this past Thursday, both Claire Von Enck’s Fairy of Eloquence, and Miller’s luminous Fairy of Generosity shined brightly, as did Harrison Ball’s Gold. Lastly, there is one relatively new member of the corps who I first noticed last season, but was unable to identify. At this past Thursday’s performance, the company made it easy. Mira Nadon, who debuted in the role earlier in the run, handled her assignment as the Fairy of Courage well, displaying both the clarity of execution and the confidence and stage presence I’d observed previously. It’s far too soon to evaluate her capabilities in other respects, but based solely on what I’ve seen so far, she’s a dancer to watch.
In other roles, both Claire Von Enck and Kristen Segin were feisty White Cats (their slaps, for example, were decidedly audible); Lauren King and Troy Schumacher were an elegant pair as Saturday afternoon’s Princess Florine and Bluebird, while Pereira and Daniel Ulbricht this past Thursday danced those same roles with more palpable gusto. And on that same Thursday program, Gilbert Bolden III made a noteworthy role debut as Catalabutte, adding considerably more nuance to the role than I’d seen previously.
It is imperative also to credit the sixteen young dancers from SAB, too many to individually identify, who appeared in the Garland Waltz and delivered flawless as well as sparkling performances. And the performances of the two young dancers I saw as Little Red Riding Hood, Charlotte Nebres and Sydney Rose Gerstein, were exceptionally engaging as well as choreographically spot on, and little Ms. Gerstein, who I saw in the role three times, could easily have made her various Wolves regret their actions, and already has an outsized stage personality that is at the same time quirky and beyond adorable.
Finally, the always magnificent NYCB orchestra, led by three different conductors over the four performances I saw, was pitch-perfect in every respect. It, as much as the dancers, made all the performances exceptional experiences.
As successful as these performances were, however, and aside from my comments about the production above, one aspect of this two-week series is worrisome. I’ve previously commented that, under the company’s current leadership, casting (as well as scheduling) has been conservative, failing to take the risks necessary to push younger talent, as Martins did when he was Ballet Master in Chief, in favor of those with greater experience, particularly the ballerinas (with respect to the danseurs, recent actions have made pushing male dancers unavoidable). It’s certainly understandable for an artistic team in an interim role to conserve resources and make as few waves as possible, but in the long run this can prove damaging.
While not quite as critical as in the casting of Juliet, Aurora, in my opinion, needs to look credible as a young princess. This can certainly be accomplished by acting youthful, but there are limits to that. In two or three or more years, when the company would be expected to return The Sleeping Beauty to the repertoire, all other things remaining the same, there would only be five dancers with experience in the role, only two of whom (including this year’s only debut) might not need to “act” youthful the next time the ballet is presented. I have no quibble with casting as it was done during this year’s season, but there is no reason to me why the four Auroras who already have experience were given three of the performances each: twelve of the fourteen. One or two additional Auroras could have been given opportunities and the experience these opportunities provide, which not only would have been exciting by itself, but would have addressed the company’s future. To me, there are several candidates whose debuts in this role are long overdue, as well as several among the corps who appear capable of it now. Not only was this a missed opportunity for them; it was a missed opportunity for the company, and for audiences to watch them grow.