The heart of the classical repertory is the Tchaikovsky-Petipa Sleeping Beauty, and no ballet is harder to get right. Those fewer and fewer of us still around whose lives were changed by Margot Fonteyn’s Aurora and the entire Sadler’s Wells production back in 1949 never stop hoping to rediscover that experience—a dangerous, no doubt self-defeating way to approach a work of art. Yet what there is on film confirms both Fonteyn’s greatness in this role and the wonderful overall style—Russian overlaid with British softness—of the company that soon morphed into the Royal Ballet; we (the entire ballet world at the time) weren’t fooling ourselves.
Since then, dozens of Beauty’s have come and gone. Sooner or later, every classical company decides to mount it, and for many reasons: It’s the font of classical style. It has the greatest of all ballet music. It’s an enchanting fairy tale that opens out into profound questions of good and evil, death and rebirth, chaos and harmony. It has one of the great ballerina roles, and ballerinas like great roles.
In recent memory, we’ve had the Kirov’s noble but misguided attempt at an exact replication of the original 1890 production; a scaled-down attempt by the Royal—after countless previous attempts—to reproduce the glories of their postwar triumph; and Peter Martins’ efficient gallop through the text (the best of his full-evening ventures). We’ve also seen two less-than-glorious A.B.T. productions, one in 1976, one in 1987.
But we’ve seen nothing like the A.B.T. version which has just premiered at the Met. The artistic director of the company, Kevin Mc-Kenzie, and Gelsey Kirkland, that one-time superb dancer and tragic self-destructor, have collaborated to give us a perverse and self-defeating reading of the ballet. Does the re-emergence of Kirkland—who later in the season will be seen as the evil fairy, Carabosse—signify the prodigal’s return or the prodigal’s revenge?
To begin with, Tony Walton’s Disneyish sets badly constrict the dance area in everything but the Vision Scene—the rest of the time the immense Met stage manages to look pokey. In the Prologue, so much is going on in so ungenerous a space—and so many garish costumes (by Willa Kim) are fighting with so much garish scenery—that you feel you’re inside a pinball machine. (And why do the Fairies make their first entrance though a shower curtain?) In Act I, a stubby section of the castle battlements effectively blocks a staircase up and down which the dancers keep making awkward entrances and exits. When Aurora, after the poisoning, is borne aloft through a low archway by the four suitors, you’re terrified that her face is going to slam into it. The Wedding is celebrated in another minimal area—but then there’s no one there to celebrate it, except for eight courtier couples in ridiculously puffy white outfits.
Here are some of the bizarreries of the McKenzie-Kirkland treatment (though we shouldn’t exempt from responsibility Michael Chernov, Kirkland’s husband and a collaborating dramaturge and stager).
The Baby. The Prologue is a christening, and a wee package of white cloth supposedly holding tiny Aurora is brought in to be admired by the court and blessed by the visiting fairies. Traditionally, Baby is deposited in a fancy cradle and left there. But, no. This tot is handed over to the Lilac Fairy, who dandles it, rocks it and then bourrees upstage holding it high above her head. Where is the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Infants? On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter, since you don’t believe in the infant for a moment: a) The baby package is clearly too light to hold even the newest born, and b) it’s obvious that no one who handles the baby, including its mother, has ever held a real one. Ladies: You have to support an infant with a hand under its head.
The Fairies’ Gifts. In this version, the gifts are never bestowed. The evil Carabosse can’t interrupt a gift-giving that isn’t taking place, and we lose the impact of the Lilac Fairy trumping Carabosse’s ace—the fatal curse—with her life-saving gift.
The King and Queen. Here’s the big new idea—The Concept. After Aurora is poisoned by the spindle and the Lilac Fairy arrives, as promised, to put her to sleep for 100 years, the King and Queen come downstage, though not until she’s enjoyed a Lady Capulet violent-grief moment. The lights are on the Queen as she weeps, and so all eyes are distracted from the important and moving business at hand: Lilac’s transforming the palace grounds into an impenetrable forest.