Efficient Sleeping Beauty Lacks Magic and Majesty

The Tchaikovsky-Petipa Sleeping Beauty is the jewel of classical ballet. It was the ballet that awoke in Pavlova the desire to be a dancer. It was the first ballet that Balanchine appeared in, aged 10, awakening him, too, to the glory of the art-until then, he had only performed his classroom exercises mechanically and with no sense of why he was doing them. It was the ballet that Diaghilev almost bankrupted himself for when he produced it in London in 1921. It was the ballet that inspired New York to a new appreciation of the art when in 1949 Margot Fonteyn and the Sadler’s Wells company arrived here for the first time. And it’s a ballet that’s notoriously difficult to get right. It’s not only the hurdles of its ruthlessly exposed dance vocabulary that make it a challenge to perform well; there’s also the charge of meaning that the music, the story and the dancing must convey-the struggle between light and darkness, love and hatred, life and death. The Sleeping Beauty has to be brilliant, and it has to be beautiful. And it has to be profound.

In 1981, two years before he died, Balanchine staged the ballet’s Garland Dance for his Tchaikovsky festival. From the thrilling way he deployed its dozens of Villagers, Maids of Honor and Children-from its sweep, its charm, its expansiveness-you could infer how rich a Balanchine full-length Beauty would be. He had always resisted staging the entire ballet because, he said, the State Theater couldn’t accommodate the magical effects he had grown up with and still felt were essential to it. Yet he went on talking about doing it almost until his death in 1983.

Eight years later, Peter Martins gave us his version. It was everything that Balanchine’s wouldn’t have been and nothing it would have been: It was reduced, streamlined, efficient; it wasn’t glowing, limpid, evocative. Even before the music started and the curtain rose, it was peculiar-almost the entire orchestra pit was covered over, presumably to make possible the slide projections onto the front curtain, which are meant to suggest the approach to the castle and the passing of time. (They were tacky to begin with and already seem hopelessly dated.) The sets, by David Mitchell, are Disneyish and lack majesty. They also cramp the stage. There aren’t many courtiers on hand for baby Aurora’s christening-perhaps King Florestan and his Queen prefer an intimate court.

Martins’ production has its virtues, of which the greatest is loyalty to Petipa’s text as we know it. He’s cut the ballet, but that’s no crime since completely uncut it’s overlong, or rather overstuffed, as we discovered from the Kirov’s recent reversion to the entire 1890 original. (Unfortunately, the drastic cuts Martins has made in the hunting-party scene leave Prince Desiré’s behavior unmotivated and unappealing.) Martins’ own insertions are in stylistic harmony with Petipa. And up to a point, he gets the story told. Narrative has always been one of his strong points, going way back to the Petipa Magic Flute he made in 1981.

But to cram this very large-scale ballet into two acts, he had to make a decision: Where to place the intermission? I find his solution seriously unsettling. Consider: First we have the Prologue-Aurora’s christening, the fairies’ gifts, the horror of Carabosse’s malign curse, the Lilac Fairy’s benign intervention. Then comes Aurora’s 16th birthday, the royal suitors, the Rose Adagio, the pricking of the finger, the collapse-and the arrival of the Lilac Fairy to keep her promise and commute Carabosse’s death sentence to 100 years’ sleep. The courtiers fall under the spell, the magical forest grows up around the court, Lilac bourrées serenely ….

All logic suggests that this is where the ballet should be broken. Instead, before the Lilac Fairy’s music is even finished, the curtain’s down, there’s highly audible scenery-moving from backstage, and we’re propelled ahead by 100 years into another world. By fast-forwarding here instead of giving us breathing time, the Martins Beauty not only puts itself to sleep but stabs itself to death. What would make far more emotional and narrative sense is: Intermission, and then the arc that rises from the hunting-party scene in which we first meet the disconsolate Desiré to the vision scene in which he falls in love, the journey in the Lilac boat to the sleeping castle, the awakening and-bang!-the wedding divertissement. Structured this way, Sleeping Beauty divides sensibly into two components-past and present, girlhood and womanhood, threat and salvation.

City Ballet presented five sets of principals, of which I saw four-no power, human or divine, could have persuaded me to watch Yvonne Borrée’s Aurora. First-cast was Jenifer Ringer, in another of the company’s futile attempts to convince us that she’s a real ballerina rather than a pleasant dancer with a nice smile. She was bland, tentative, unconvincing, just as she was in Coppélia . And “Emeralds.” By spotlighting the veteran Ringer this way (and this applies to Borree as well), Martins reveals the degree to which his company has taken on a civil-service mentality: Seniority rules.

And yet sometimes seniority does the trick. Miranda Weese, whose work I’ve been struggling to like for years, was the most complete and persuasive of the Auroras; for once, she seemed deeply invested in a role, cloaking her technical sureness in tenderness and joy. She’s not the greatest of Auroras (in my lifetime, they’ve been Margot Fonteyn and Irina Kolpakova), but she does justice to the role, revealing a new awareness that dancing involves performance as well as steps. Let’s hope she continues down this path.

Alexandra Ansanelli does not need to learn that lesson: She’s strong and she can do steps, but essentially she’s all performance. Everything in her debut was underlined and drawn attention to-the smiles, the curtsies, the charm seemed pasted on, inorganic. And she’s not really made for the strict classicism of Petipa that Aurora’s role exemplifies. You can’t succeed in Beauty on your personal qualities alone.

The other young dancer making her Aurora debut was Ashley Bouder, a true classicist. She’s not entirely refined yet-in her entrance and Rose Adagio, she’s all eager attack, sometimes compromising her security. But she’s the real thing. In the vision scene she was calm, focused, otherworldly, and in the last-act pas de deux-the emotional climax of the ballet-she found some of the serene gravity that this moment of reconciliation and harmony demands. As Bouder moves into the big technical challenges- Theme and Variations , Piano Concerto No. 2 , Symphony in C -she’ll grow more discriminating and less intent on making every single moment count. Meanwhile, this was an auspicious debut.

The Lilac Fairies were mostly disappointing-they have glamour but they don’t suggest the role’s larger spiritual dimensions; they lack expansiveness, the quality most wanting in City Ballet dancers these days, with rare exceptions like Bouder and the injured Jennie Somogyi. As for the other fairies, their famous variations were for the most part either arid or unformed. (Among the exceptions were Sterling Hyltin and Carla Körbes.) Poor Petipa.

There were three Carabosses, all very different. Merrill Ashley-she’s back!-was glitteringly wicked and having a great old time. Maria Kowroski (who was also a Lilac Fairy) was most like a “normal” fairy gone wrong; the contrast between her soft beauty and her wickedness gave her a particular virulence, like that of the wicked stepmother in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs . Kyra Nichols was simply the embodiment of evil-it was chilling to watch her hand the poisoned bouquet to Aurora and creep away. This paragon of classicism has become a superb dramatic artist.

And then there were the Desirés. Damien Woetzel does his buoyant virtuoso thing, not exactly in Petipa mode; he was at his best heroically hacking away at the underbrush to get to the enchanted castle. Philip Neal was an excellent partner and an elegant prince, if slightly understated. Peter Boal was a beautiful foil for Weese. And Nilas Martins, whose dancing is, to put it tactfully, far from virtuoso, looked handsome and handled the mime very effectively.

As for the famous Bluebird pas de deux, a century ago the territory of the likes of Pavlova and Nijinsky, first-cast were the company’s new fun couple, Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz. They’re teeny-tiny, but both of them can dance, and they have the spirit. Amanda Edge and Tom Gold were the worst pair I’ve seen in 50-plus years of Bluebirds: She’s a petite bulldozer, he’s bedraggled and earthbound. A sorry moment in the history of both Sleeping Beauty and the New York City Ballet.

But finally it isn’t individual performances that make the difference. Peter Martins’ Sleeping Beauty is about story and steps, not about life as manifested by Tchaikovsky in his greatest score. (The orchestra, by the way, was as ragged as I’ve heard it in years. Poor Tchaikovsky.) Just as feeling has been stripped from the Martins Swan Lake , meaning has been left out of his Beauty . You see this most clearly when watching Balanchine’s Garland Dance, with its ravishing complexities and largeness of scale; next to it, everything in Martins’ ballet looks miniaturized and empty.

In “Balanchine, the World Hath Need of Thee!”, a screech of rage against today’s City Ballet which appeared recently in The National Review , Carol Iannone wonders “if the younger man [Martins] is perhaps engaged in some kind of Oedipal revenge, deliberately reducing the towering figure of his great father so that he cannot threaten the less talented son.” Ironically, with his Garland Dance, the father reaches out from the grave to exact his revenge.