A new Giselle? A new Swan Lake? Another day, another dollar. But a new Sleeping Beauty is always an event, and for many reasons. Its score is Tchaikovsky’s greatest, which means ballet’s greatest. Its demands on a ballet company are enormous: huge cast, opulent sets and costumes, a special brand of ballerina, a rigorous and exposed style, a complicated and demanding tradition … and imagination.
Beauty isn’t like any other ballet. It isn’t, of course, a tragedy or a melodrama, but it’s also not a boy-meets-girl comedy—a Coppélia, a Fille Mal Gardée; those works present their heroines with simple domestic problems, which get predictably resolved. And it’s not a wish-fulfillment fantasy like Cinderella. The Sleeping Beauty, rather, looks at the cycle of life, involves a brush with malignity and death, and gives us a heroine who must awaken to love and sexual experience, and whose trajectory to emotional fulfillment implies the restoration of the entire world to harmony.
This is no small order, and many—most—productions falter on their way to achieving it. How many great Beautys can we recall? Hardly a man is still alive (can there be any?) who remembers Diaghilev’s extravagant London production of 1921—the production that more or less bankrupted him. Balanchine never attempted a complete Sleeping Beauty, much as he loved it (and referred to it constantly in his work); no Ballet Theater Beauty has ever done the trick; Peter Martins’ compact version misses the glory. There were lovely Kirov performances in the 60’s (with Kolpakova), but the Kirov is now giving us its painstaking and glacial reconstruction of the 1890 original. And the two most recent Royal Ballet attempts have been failures.
It was the Sadler’s Wells/Royal staging—conceived in 1946 for the postwar reopening of Covent Garden—that became the benchmark for Beautys in the West. In a new book celebrating the Royal’s 75th anniversary, the British dance critic Zoë Anderson describes it: “The production, designed by Oliver Messel, was a vision of splendour at a time of bitter austerity. Paint and canvas were scarce, rationing was still in force, coupons had to be found for fabrics, gloves and boots. The Queen’s train was made from somebody’s velvet curtains …. Messel’s sets combined airy architectural fantasy with a sense of place. The soft colours set the dancers off, surrounding them with light and space … groupings looked marvelous …. ” And, of course, it starred Fonteyn in her greatest role.
It was this same production that three years later, in 1949, opened the famous Sadler’s Wells season in New York, earned the company its international reputation, crowned Fonteyn as a prima ballerina assoluta, and—to be a touch fanciful—kissed classical ballet back to life in America. It’s not only memory, often so treacherous, that keeps it so dear to us; what we have on film confirms its beauty, its style, its musicality and Fonteyn’s greatness. For years the company toured it in America, until finally it was gone. And nothing on its level has come along to replace it. The Royal’s style eroded; the company’s focus was more and more on the far-from-classical dance dramas of Kenneth MacMillan; even Frederick Ashton, the company’s great choreographer, was neglected—a pattern that has been reversed in recent years, first under Anthony Dowell, now under Monica Mason.
As for Beauty, there was a new production in 1968; another (by MacMillan) in 1973; another in 1977; another (by Dowell) in 1994; another (by Makarova) in 2003. Now, only three years later, Mason has brought to America the company’s latest attempt to restore its signature work to its former glory.
Here’s how the credits run: “Choreography by Marius Petipa. Additional Choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell, Christopher Wheeldon. Production by Monica Mason, Christopher Newton after Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev. Original Designs by Oliver Messel. Realization and Additional Designs by Peter Farmer …. ” What does all that mean? That Mason has decided to go backwards in order to progress. The key decision was to “realize” the Messel sets and costumes—to restore to Beauty the lovely atmosphere it once exemplified.
I saw this new Beauty at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and it was immediately apparent that it was too big for the stage—or the stage was too small for it. Everything looked cramped. There should have been more room in the Prologue for the wicked fairy Carabosse and her scampering rats to wheel about in. Aurora’s thrilling first entrance through the arcade upstage was partially blocked by the courtiers; they had nowhere else to stand. The Lilac Fairy’s boat, by which she conveys the Prince to the sleeping castle, was not only especially ugly but was too big in this context. One would have to see the production on a stage suited to it to know whether it’s a keeper.
Some questionable decisions have been made. Why has Ashton’s “Garland Dance” been thrown out and replaced by a fussy mishmash by Wheeldon? Why do we have a sketchy and feeble drop curtain at the start, in such contrast to the regal Messel look? Why, if you’re out to preserve and conserve, do you have to put your personal and irrelevant stamp on things?
But none of that constitutes the main issue. Alas, for all its earnestness and prettiness (and the costumes, at least, are very pretty), this Beauty is strangely pallid. The “Realized” sets seem dutiful (the third act looks positively skimpy)—there’s far more here of Farmer himself, and less Messel, than we’ve been led to believe; the classical approach to the fairy variations appeared to have been carefully learned for the occasion, not an expression of an inbred company style. The Carabosse (I saw Genesia Rosato) was less than menacing, at her best when emitting a soundless shriek of laughter. (You may prefer Carabosse en travesti, as I do, but we don’t have to go back further than Merrill Ashley or Lourdes Lopez in the Martins version to recall chilling performances by women; Mason herself was a superb Carabosse.) The Bluebird pas de deux was underpowered. The fairy-tale characters were game but limp. The Lilac Fairy was strongly danced by the talented Lauren Cuthbertson, but she lacked the magical womanly grace and authority with which Lilac rights the wrongs of the world.
And yet … the crucial element was there. Makarova once said, “Sleeping Beauty is a triumph of academic virtuosity, permeated with a youthful charm which a ballerina has to radiate.” The Aurora of Alina Cojocaru radiated youth, natural charm and—so important—ease. And her technique is solid. But there’s nothing solid about the way she dances: She’s light, quick, confident, both delicate and strong. Like Fonteyn, she’s instantly lovable—you see at once why her parents, the suitors, her friends, the courtiers, the fairies all care about her. And because you love her, it’s unbearable when Carabosse poisons her, even though you know that rescue, in the form of the Lilac Fairy, is on the way. Her Rose Adagio started wonderfully—the first turn relaxed and sure. There were one or two shaky moments, but they didn’t detract from the serene glow of happiness that she emanated. This, after all, is the moment when she’s taking her place in the world—it’s a birthday party, it’s an engagement party, it’s a celebration of the first step of a girl into womanhood. If the Rose Adagio is only a technical triumph, it’s empty, and The Sleeping Beauty is dead; Cojocaru makes us experience it as a burst of joy, not a challenge.
Her variation was pure and unforced, her danse-vertige moving, her Vision Scene romantic and alluring: Of course the Prince would fall instantly in love. And in the profound third-act pas de deux she was assured and brilliant, flinging herself into the famous fish-dives with gleeful abandon. What she lacks, for me, in this climax to the entire ballet is a new gravity and depth. A century has gone by, and she’s been wakened by the man she loves—she is a woman now. And she’s not only being married, she’s being crowned. Her world—our world—has been through an ordeal and survived, and she is the emblem of that survival. But she’s been reawakened to a new life, not her old one. If her “death” and rebirth don’t lead to a new understanding, a new maturity, it’s been a waste of a 100-year sleep.
I don’t as yet sense in Cojocaru an understanding of all this, but it will surely come. She is, with Diana Vishneva, one of the two most satisfying classical ballerinas in the world today. She has the looks, the talent and the opportunity—the company knew what it had from the start. We know that envy is one of the deadliest of the sins, but how can we not envy the Royal this enchanting Beauty?