Beauty and Beyond: ABT’s Premiere of Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country Is a Highlight of the Season

But 'The Sleeping Beauty' still suffers from its Disneyish set

Gillian Murphy in 'Sylvia.'

Gillian Murphy in ‘Sylvia.’ (Courtesy ABT)

Half a dozen years ago, American Ballet Theatre unveiled a new production of The Sleeping Beauty. The veil should never have been lifted. In a lifetime of attending important premieres, I can’t remember a more disastrous one. After the first act, critics were roaming the aisles asking each other things like, “Can you believe this?” and “How can this have happened?” Part of the problem stems from the fact that Beauty is, for many of us, a sacred text—ballet’s greatest score and the summit of ballet classicism, a work filled with emotional and spiritual resonance. Also, for some of us, the memory of the great Sadler’s Wells production with Margot Fonteyn that came to New York in 1949 impinges on our enjoyment of lesser versions (including the many since mounted by the Royal Ballet itself). This latest ABT version—staged by the company’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, with the ex-ballerina Gelsey Kirkland and her husband, Michael Chernov—was defaced with distorting concepts that undermined everything noble and beautiful about the ballet. There were no redeeming features.

Within days, helpful adjustments were being made, and slowly the whole thing has grown more or less respectable. But one of the basic problems hasn’t been solved: the physical production. Not only are the costumes (by Willa Kim) garish, but Tony Walton’s Disneyish set impedes and undercuts the action. Worst is the stone staircase down which Aurora must cautiously pick her way—partly obscured—to make her entrance to Tchaikovsky’s great entrance music. The poor girl is practically dead on arrival—just as she’s about to go into the notoriously exposed Rose Adagio. And then at the climactic moment of the act, after Aurora has been poisoned by the evil Carabosse, her rescuer, the Lilac Fairy, has to fumble her way down those same stairs. One can only wonder how a major ballet company could have entrusted the design of so demanding a ballet to a designer, however talented, who so far as I know has no experience in ballet and certainly doesn’t understand this one. Why ballerinas don’t go on strike is beyond my understanding.

First cast this season was Paloma Herrera, who has been in the company for more than 20 years and has had her ups and downs. She’s musical, she has lovely feet and legs, and she’s been clever enough to scale her performance down—she’s always been more contained than expansive. Was she everything you want in an Aurora? Not by a long shot. But she was pleasing and consistent (we forgive ballerinas the odd wobble in the Rose Adagio). Her best moment was her third-act solo during the transcendent final pas de deux: you could sense her relief at having made it through—and her gratitude for having the nonpareil Marcelo Gomes as her partner.

The rest of the cast was more or less on top of things. Lilac is Veronika Part’s most satisfactory role—it doesn’t demand the allegro virtuosity she lacks, and the grandeur of her physique and her somewhat bovine complacency suit the occasion. The wonderful Martine van Hamel, a superb ABT ballerina in the ’70s and ’80s, made one of her return (and always welcome) appearances as Carabosse—definitely in command. She can’t help it that her costume and the staging of her big scene are so counterproductive.

The high point of the performance—the one thrilling passage—was the famous “Bluebird Pas de Deux.” In the long-ago past, this was often danced by a pair of stars—Nijinsky and Pavlova, for one. But it’s been downgraded, presumably because it’s so short, and second-level executants don’t make it the showstopper it’s supposed to be. On this occasion, the Princess Florine was Isabella Boylston, by far the most talented of the younger women who are coming up. Indeed, she’s come up, to major roles like Odette-Odile and Don Quixote’s Kitri; she just hasn’t been made a principal. (Instead, management crowned the pleasing but less gifted Hee Seo.) Boylston gave us the freshness, the expansiveness that Herrera’s cautious performance lacked. And talk about musical! But what made the whole thing so exciting was her being paired with that ex-Bolshoi extrovert (to put it mildly), Ivan Vasiliev. With his postwar Soviet thighs, his thrusting chest and his sculpted hair, he’d be a parody if he weren’t so explosive, so committed, so impressive. Usually we see him with Natalia Osipova, his partner and fellow Bolshoi escapee, and they’re two of a remarkable kind. But I liked him more contrasted with the delicate and modest Boylston. Yes, as with Tracy and Hepburn, he gave her sex and she gave him class.

In Beauty, as well as in the company’s other classic showpieces, ABT’s corps was in excellent order—not just background but a positive force. The ballet masters are doing a good job. How strange, then, that in Balanchine’s Symphony in C, they were so awful—the first movement, in particular, was a shambles. Some of the principals were up to the task: Paulina Semionova’s beauty helped her elegant interpretation of the magnificent adagio; the fascinating Simone Messmer—who, alas, is decamping for San Francisco—was on top of the final movement; and of course Herman Cornejo was superb in the third (let’s restrain ourselves from characterizing Xiomara Reyes, his partner). Osipova and Vasiliev, in the same movement and true to form, were way over the top. Balanchine style and Bolshoi style are far from compatible.

Symphony in C was part of a triple bill that also gave us Mark Morris’s Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, a 12-dancer company piece in which the company looked at ease and happy, the only star being Gomes in the first cast. Boylston, Messmer, Joseph Gorak, Sascha Radetsky and James Whiteside, the excellent new soloist in town, stood out, but everyone had the spirit and the tone. The big event was the company premiere of Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country (1976), to Chopin, after Turgenev’s famous play. With its famously pretty sets and costumes by Julia Trevelyan Oman and its faithful rendition of the plot, this work is a kind of Masterpiece Theatre ballet, but when danced with feeling, it works. No one at ABT is on the level of the original English cast—Lynn Seymour and Anthony Dowell—but on the whole, the company did Ashton justice.

It was a fascination to compare the two Natalia Petrovnas. Julie Kent, fading gently into history, gave a touching performance as an aging woman with an aged husband, eager for a last romance with the young tutor who arrives to teach her son; Hee Seo was a young wife bored with her life, for whom the tutor is a break in the monotony of her country existence. Kent’s tutor, Beliaev, was Roberto Bolle: tall, broad, matinee-idol handsome, who to me looks and dances like a circus strongman—what a hunk, what a good partner, but one with no affect. David Hallberg—second cast!—was, as always, superb: subtle, detailed, convincing in his casual and confused response to the drama he’s precipitated. Daniil Simkin, who looks like a boy, played the boy, but he’s too cute for me; the very talented Arron Scott, who looks like a man, was more convincing. Both Stella Abrera and Messmer brought charm and character to the rather conventional flirty maid. But apart from the specifics of the performances, the important thing is that ABT put together a brilliant program—Balanchine, Ashton, Morris—while bringing an important Ashton work into a major American company.