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.
What’s going on here? When you can’t follow a ballet’s action, you can always read the program notes. And that’s where you learn that Lilac has informed the royals that they must “leave the castle and leave Aurora to her destiny.” Why? So that she can cry and cry and cry until her tears turn into a river (the Prince and Lilac sail up it in the next act). In another Tchaikovsky-Petipa masterpiece, Odette tells us in mime how her mother’s tears created Swan Lake, and anything Odette’s mom can do, Aurora’s can do better. Of course, the banishment of the monarchs and their absence from the last act undermines the central thrust of Sleeping Beauty—the restoration of civilization through the defeat of evil. But when you’ve got hold of a Concept, out goes the meaning with the river water.
The Vision Scene. Prince Désiré is discontent. He moons around the forest glade, performing extended solos to compensate him for having so little dancing to do until the grand pas de deux in the final act. At this point in your ordinary Sleeping Beauty, the Lilac Fairy grants him a vision of Aurora, and he’s hooked. But at A.B.T. these days, he drinks from the River of Tears and has a dream … and then he has the vision. Two sightings of Aurora for the price of one, to half the effect.
Carabosse. She fusses, she fumes, she comes and goes in misfiring loud bursts of smoke and flame, she turns into a spider (her hideous bug-slaves extruding filaments from her contorted body—a good touch). And so she traps poor Désiré in her web way up in the air. Lilac is up there too—let’s hope the dancers don’t suffer from acrophobia—and of course Lilac wins out. But it’s all pro forma: We’re in a comic book, not a great ballet.
The Awakening and The Wedding. They both go by in a flash. The standard divertissement is merely sampled: a snatch of the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, of Cinderella and Prince Charming. We do get the whole of the “Bluebird pas de deux,” with Princess Florine carried on in a cage. And we get the grand pas de deux. But no one except those few courtiers has bothered to come to this combination royal wedding and coronation. Maybe they didn’t send out invitations? Have they forgotten that this is what got them into trouble with Carabosse in the first place?
SO FAR I'VE SEEN TWO of the six casts. (Help!) Opening night, the Aurora was Veronika Part. Little as I enjoy her in general, I can’t really blame her for this performance: She’s simply miscast. Aurora is a young girl, light, joyous—the dawn. Part is heavy, slow, deliberate—deep twilight. The closest she got to youth and charm was that relentless smile pasted on her face, which nothing could wipe off until she got to the demanding moments of her “Rose adagio,” when her nerves did it for her. Her better moments were in the Vision Scene, in which she could be ineffable.
Aurora No. 2 was the reliable Paloma Herrera, who knows how to convey youth and sweetness. Example: Part flings the suitors’ roses at her mother’s feet; Herrera gently places them there, with a modest reverence.
Michele Wiles has no problem with the Lilac Fairy’s steps, but she lacks composure and command. Marcelo Gomes and Angel Corella were worthy Princes—Gomes his usual manly, expansive self; Corella his usual elegant charmer. The superb Herman Cornejo would have been an even better Bluebird had he not been hampered by his cluttered costume and ludicrous headpiece—and by a Florine a little too big for him (Xiomara Reyes). He would have been far better off paired with petite Sarah Lane, who did an exemplary job in the second cast. (Lane might well have been a more suitable Aurora than half the ballerinas who are doing it, but at A.B.T., hierarchy rules.)
Why go on? The whole thing is a big misguided mess. You may feel that Peter Martins’ Beauty is too compressed and inexpressive, but it’s loyal to the text. The McKenzie-Kirkland-Chernov rendering, in trying to be original, ends up a travesty.