Sleeping Beauty Dreams
The Beacon Theater
New York, New York
December 14, 2018
Dreams can be interpreted in multiple ways, and, if describable, could mean different things to different people. The same holds true for works of art. So it was in both respects with the performances of a visualized “dream” presented at New York’s Beacon Theater Friday night: the New York premiere of Sleeping Beauty Dreams. The project, conceived and directed by Rem Hass and created by an artistic army on the cutting edge of technological development, featured Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes dancing a stone’s throw up Broadway from Lincoln Center, where both gave so many memorable ballet performances.
On one level, that of visual performance art, the venture was a great success with much of the opening night audience, which gave it a standing ovation. It was exactly as described: “a contemporary dance and art show; a fusion of performance art, electronic music, new media art, and ‘revolutionary Real-Time Digital Avatar technology’.” If an artistically radical explosion of light and color and movement fueled by technology that appears activated by and an amplification of the movement performed by Vishneva live on stage is what audience-members anticipated, which appears to have been the case, that’s what they got. As something to look at, it’s often stunning, and all the artists involved (some of whom are identified below) deserve credit for the creation and execution of a ground-breaking visual experience.
But as a piece of dance and theater, and as ground-breaking as it is, Sleeping Beauty Dreams comes across as an initial experiment in the possibilities of the technology as it relates to both, not the optimization of the art form as it may eventually appear. Anyone looking for something resembling the magic that Vishneva and Gomes provided and continue to provide, separately and together, in other dance performances won’t find that here (to the chagrin of many in my seating vicinity). And anyone looking for something resembling a coherent narrative beyond the presumed overall context of the fairy tale itself won’t find that here either. Indeed, Sleeping Beauty Dreams bears only the flimsiest of relationships to the fairy tale. Even if one assumes that the “story” of the piece, theatrically, is limited to being the visualization of a 100 year long dream during which, and within which, the protagonist evolves emotionally from being a teenager to someone 100 years older, give or take, the result, at least for an audience member for whom the advancement of technology is not an end in itself, is something to look at from a distance, not something to become emotionally involved in or to share the moment with.
Aside from a demonstration of technological wizardry, Sleeping Beauty Dreams is interesting – even at times exciting – to watch, but it can also be numbing and tedious. And the best parts of it – other than the oohs and ahhs prompted by watching the technology work – is when it’s liberated from the technology and Vishneva and Gomes, within the confines of their costumes, and an accompanying chorus of ten male dancers, just dance.
At the outset, it must be emphasized that the idea of exploring what happens within Aurora’s mind as she sleeps is both wonderful and long overdue. I’m not aware that the idea has been previously explored (publicity indicates that this is the first time), although more avant-garde productions of The Sleeping Beauty have hinted at the emotional and sexually-charged evolution that had taken place. Of course, a visualized dream is hardly new to dance in general and ballet in particular. Where would classical ballet be without Petipa dream scenes during which a central character’s dream is the subject of choreographic (and /or thematic) exploration? And such dreamy side-trips, or concepts for the piece as a whole, aren’t limited to male characters: for example, much of the raison d’etre to the vast majority of stagings of The Nutcracker is Clara (or Marie’s) dream, and Michel Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose is visualized entirely within the parameters of a young woman’s dream. I can’t explain why it wasn’t done before with respect to The Sleeping Beauty beyond the desire to avoid lengthening an already lengthy (in many incarnations) ballet, or, more likely, an aversion to visualizing the taboo subject of a teen-age girl’s emotional and sexual evolution.
But whether Sleeping Beauty Dreams accomplishes what it claims it sets out to do, beyond the technology involved, is another matter. To me, technological accomplishments notwithstanding, it doesn’t.
In a sense, the piece begins before it begins: with the theatrical environment. The Beacon Theater opened in 1929 and seats nearly 3000 over three or four levels. Its size, however, is not its most distinguishing feature. The cavernous floor-to-ceiling lower orchestra space is guarded on both sides by bronzish elevated, heroic-sized statues of watchful but emotionless Greco-Roman goddesses bearing staffs (or spears) that could, individually, kabob an entire orchestra row. Above them (and above a row of oversized coin-like heads of four warriors /politicians on each side, with slightly different poses between one side and the other) there are large rectangular vertical cascading panoramas of people on a dark and stormy night either fleeting a city from some terrible barbarian invasion (complete with an elephant or two) or scrambling all over themselves to be first to score the day’s catch in the harbor – or both, since, like the coins, the paintings/ frescoes on each side are not exactly identical. The stage itself is flanked by what appear to be metal receptacles (empty suits of armor?; huge but nondescript urns? – I couldn’t tell because the lighting was theater-dim, and looked even dimmer in contrast to banks of powerful stadium-like lighting facing outward from the area above the stage so audience members could find their way to seats without tripping over themselves – like the people in the paintings) filled with super-sized spears.
The ambiance was classical / gothic, melodramatic / ominous, and a highly appropriate venue for the Sleeping Beauty Dreams presentation.
When the program actually begins, Vishneva is sprawled downstage center on a slab of a bed (or just a slab), wearing a sort of patchwork body suit (looking like sections of it were stitched together to make the whole) – no celebratory tutu, which is the costume the audience would have last seen her character wearing in the purported dramatic context; and in a somewhat fetal position –no arms crossed across her body, the position in which the audience would have last seen her. [Given the presence of Vishneva and Gomes, I’m placing Sleeping Beauty Dreams in the context of Petipa-derived productions of The Sleeping Beauty ballet.] I thought more of Juliet in the Capulet tomb than Aurora asleep in a royal bed.
As Vishneva, here identified as “The Princess” rather than Aurora, rises from her prone position, the area surrounding her (from above and behind) becomes illuminated with white light. When she moves her limbs the light splashes and fractures across the “screen” (I don’t know if that’s the correct term) behind her like a cascading movement spray that generates additional sprays of white light every time she moves her arms or legs (at various points her costume is embedded with “sensors” that track her movement which is simultaneously transferred to the movement of the sprays of light above her). The torso moves as well, but globally, looking on the screen like an amorphous blob that changes position as she does.
As I recall, the color and shape of the images that are the visualized transformations of Vishneva’s movements soon change shape and color, corresponding to a change in tempo of the electronic music that accompanies all this. Some of the visual images (by Tobias Gremmler) are quite beautiful (particularly when Vishneva moves circularly); others are the visual equivalent of the electronic music –pounding and portentous, with a hint of vulgarity and a surfeit of artistic excess. At some point the background screen is replaced by a scrim behind which Vishneva sometimes moves. While it’s interesting to see the color evolution based on Vishneva’s movement, the sound at this stage (and largely throughout the piece) makes it seem more horror story than dream.
Accompanying another change in the music tempo, these flashing or kaleidoscopic image transformations of Vishneva’s movement yield to a wall of greenish grayish bluish cells of “air bubbles “ (a little – just a little – Kandinskyish) that alternatively change position or implode and which, at least initially, her movement doesn’t control. And then these images break apart and yield to a visual cacophony of body parts and wild animals.
All these images (except for the initial phase of the “wall bubbles”} are accompanied by sounds that are noteworthy for their aural aggressiveness (translated – they’re mercilessly loud), and which reach repeated crescendos, perhaps an overused electronic equivalent of clashing cymbals, whenever Vishneva’s body movement is punctuated at its apex or there’s a change in movement emphasis. The panorama of images and sounds would be enough to awaken even one under the influence of an evil fairy’s curse.
If there’s any meaning to this presentation that says something beyond being nightmarish, it eluded me. And, worse, notwithstanding what the technology was supposed to be doing, I saw the technology and the electronic music dictating the action rather than the other way around.
And then Vishneva leaves the stage, replaced by a gaggle of men in white.
At this stage in the piece the accompanying electronic music (by Thijs De Vlieger) is still overly vibrant and percussive, but now there seems to be a direction to it, and a semblance of choreography appears beyond the earlier angst-ridden movement designed to be transformed into images. But the movement that accompanies it is strange – on its own, and in context. With their white costumes (all costumes designed by Bart Hess), including floor-length white skirts, the men bring to mind whirling dervishes. And although there’s little swirling movement, the effect of the men moving either in unison or with varied sequencing is ceremonial, contemporary, ritualistic — and very Middle-Eastern. The choreography (by Edward Clug) is quite good here for what it is, the execution was superb, and the respite it provided from the prior images was most welcome – but what a Middle-Eastern (maybe a little African too) chorus is doing in the middle of the Princess’s dream (particularly if one still is under the impression that the princess is the fairy tale’s Aurora) is, at least, a conundrum.
Then something almost wonderful happens. Vishneva returns, and eventually appears to wander among the ten men looking for something. Aha! She’s searching for the man of her dreams, just like danseurs do in so many ballets! Neat. Well, it’s not exactly that clear, but we’re grasping at thematic straws.
And then, emerging from the wings, her Prince (identified simply as “The prince”) appears: in white tights and a bubble-laden jacket that looked like the upper half of some misbegotten space suit.
The pas de deux that Vishneva and Gomes dance is … gentle, especially compared with what preceded it, but nondescript. What choreography there is was limited by the dancers’ respective costumes, and there was no expression of emotion. That being said, Gomes can still partner even when unable to measurably move his torso. And the changed tone was accompanied by a change in visuals. Instead of sparkles or blobs of color, there were gorgeous cosmic pinpoint flashes of color. Her prince from inner space gave her cosmic goosebumps.
And then the space prince just walks away. It was time for intermission (and, perhaps, time for the seed that the Prince’s appearance may have represented to grow in the Princess’s evolving mind).
When the second Act begins, Vishneva has changed – or at least her costume has. In the intermission’s intervening 99 years or so, the princess has matured, and is now wearing a glittery golden body suit that oozes sensual evolution. And with sensors now spread all over her outfit, her accompanying imagery has changed as well. Instead of flashes or blobs of moving light, all around her are giant avatars (digital avatar technology by ‘fuse’) that multiply and move through space as she does on the stage floor. Maybe the transition from lights to bodies moving in space (within the Princess’s mind) is indicative of maturity as well as fantastic technology; but aside from that, there’s not much else to these images beside the fact that they’re there. The avatars look like stiff mannequins (somewhat like the balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, except weird) and although their bodies move as Vishneva does (moving their limbs and walking on air), they bear no physical resemblance to Vishneva beyond general shape.
The ten men in white eventually reappear, except now they’re more playful. The Prince soon joins them – still in his space suit. The Princess and Prince dance – much more intimately than the prior pas de deux though still emotionless – but he again leaves her. Then, to yet another crashendo of electronic music (and far more animated movement resulting in a far more dynamic stage), the Princess turns to the back of the stage and sees a huge floating head (in her mind), with its face to the audience. From my angle, the face was devoid of any character but looked like it belonged to a different, older, woman. The music rises, the head slowly disintegrates, and the Princess moves upstage through the space the head occupied into her now mature future (in darkness, maybe because it’s unknowable). The end. It’s a dynamite image, but if the princess was going to shatter her previous teen age image of herself (which I assume the head was supposed to represent), why make the head look like that of an older woman? We don’t see her get kissed – I suppose that’s on the other side of the void.
I’ve gone through this exercise of recounting the piece in more than usual detail in the hope of demonstrating what Sleeping Beauty Dreams really is – a concept that pushes existing technology to its limits, but that translates into a sound and light show that makes little sense as dance or theater. There’s a story there, as there’s supposed to be, but, as I saw it, that “story” can be summarized in a couple of sentences. The rest is technological filler.
I admit to being somewhat critically dishonest here. What I’ve recounted is my observation of what I saw, absent any indication of what the artistic team was trying to do beyond exploring Sleeping Beauty’s 100 year dream. But as intermission ended, theater ushers distributed programs that identified the players and the artistic team, and that provided a summary of the piece’s “plot” (although this libretto, such as it is, is not credited). I was unable to read it until the piece ended, but I suspect had I seen it in advance, it would have made things even more confusing, and the piece appear even less successful.
In summary: in Act I the Princess’s soul separates from her body as she dreams (and moves around), but her soul immediately battles three “Demons”: Fear; Violence; Greed (why not the Seven Deadly Sins?) – presumably the demons are the different garish shapes and colors accompanied by the equally garish sounds. So, I suppose, her body movement isn’t controlling the images, it’s battling them. And Soul Princess wins – although you wouldn’t know it from seeing the action on stage, since one “battle” immediately segues into the next, and since, after it’s over, the three Demons come right back. [Maybe they’re the men in white, who aren’t mentioned in the Act I description.] Soul Princess and the Prince together vanquish this Demon-act redux, but “harmony does not last,” the Prince vanishes, the Princess (presumably the real one, not her soul) goes back to sleep, and the audience enjoys intermission.
In Act II, the Princess, with or without her Soul, faces Three Temptations: passionate lovers, sweet dreams, and ardent fans (each Temptation personified, somehow, by the ten men in white). This really gets the Princess furious, and her fury transforms her into a heartless Goddess of Destruction [that face), but the Prince kisses the Princess and the Fury dies away. (There was a kiss? Where? When?)
I liked what I thought I saw better. And even had I known what the “story” was supposed to be, I wouldn’t have seen it – any of it – as it was presented.
What should be obvious by this point is that Sleeping Beauty Dreams is technology in search of a theatrical way to show it.
Not all is lost here. I see Sleeping Beauty Dreams as the first stage of an experiment that may eventually be refined into a program of dance theater that explores Aurora’s dream in a way that makes sense, and in which the technological bells and whistles are subservient to a story and the dancers performing it. And maybe some way for an avatar to interact with the dancer rather than “simply” (and I don’t mean to minimize the accomplishment here) move as the dancer does in a technologically enhanced way. All that’s needed is refinement, artistic control, and that sense of humanity that makes fairy tales timeless.