This season’s version of ABT’s The Sleeping Beauty is 14 minutes shorter than last year’s version, when it was new. Which means that it’s 14 minutes better, since most of what’s been cut was both gratuitous and disfiguring. No more imposed story line about the Queen weeping a river of tears, or Prince Désiré flinging himself down beside it so that we can have a pointless (and endless) dream sequence. No extended combat scene, up on a rickety platform in the trees, between the Prince and the Lilac Fairy on the one hand and that wicked spider Carabosse on the other. (We still have a web, but it’s down below and barely has time to register.)
What’s more, the King and Queen are back where they belong in the Wedding scene: at the wedding. (Last year, they were banished by the Lilac Fairy at the end of the Vision Scene, like Adam and Eve expelled from Eden.)
There have been other, less crucial, improvements. The Fairies in the Prologue, for instance, no longer emerge from behind an upstage shower curtain; the Bluebird’s costume is no longer so unsightly, and he isn’t carried on in a cage.
In other words, the dramaturges and their most blatantly inappropriate concepts have been routed, more or less the way Carabosse and her bug-slaves are routed. Once again, life imitates art.
All this having been duly and gratefully acknowledged, the sad fact remains that even given a trimmer, more rational narrative, this Beauty still suffers from severe and, I fear, intractable problems.
The easiest fixes would be purely physical. With enough money, the worst of the Willa Kim costumes could be replaced (the Bluebird’s was only the most egregiously awful, apart from the panniered marshmallows inside which the lady courtiers of the Wedding Scene are trapped); and it wouldn’t even take money to get those garlands off the heads of the Fairies’ cavaliers in the Prologue, or to remove the ludicrous pale blue veils that flutter down from their shoulders. All it would take is snip, snip, snip, and maybe the poor boys wouldn’t look so down-in-the-mouth.
What would be harder, though not impossible, would be to adjust Tony Walton’s greeting-card set designs so that Aurora’s first entrance, down some treacherous-looking stairs, isn’t obstructed—as if she didn’t have enough to worry about at this point, with the Rose Adagio coming up fast. And then it happens again, this time to the Lilac Fairy at the climactic moment when she comes to the rescue after Aurora has been poisoned. Was anybody looking when all this was being planned?
But the real problem is that the entire production never suggests the progress from discord to harmony that is the subtext of this Tchaikovsky-Petipa masterpiece. It’s not just the sets and costumes that have been Disneyfied, it’s the content: We’re given nothing but the basic story (now happily restored) and some pretty dance passages. When Aurora and Désiré are finally united, in the great pas de deux that’s the climax of the ballet, they’re just the same couple of nice kids they were before she slept her way through a century and he was rescued by Lilac from the dreary round of hunting parties and elegant mistresses that princes are subjected to. You’d never suspect that the ending of Sleeping Beauty reflects the natural evolution from adolescent innocence to mature love, or the inevitable handing over of authority from one generation to the next.
It’s now the Wedding Scene that is the production’s main disaster area. It’s still underpopulated, despite the welcome reappearance of the King and Queen. The set is a mess and the costumes wretched. The Fairies are back, pointlessly busy with echoes of what they do so much more effectively in the Prologue. (And can’t someone suppress that canary-yellow Fairy of Joy?) And—dopiest of all—there’s no proper divertissement. Yes, the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, Cinderella and Prince Charming make snapshot appearances, but their traditional specialty numbers are gone.
Bringing back the Fairies is the greatest remaining dramaturgical disaster. The actual story of The Sleeping Beauty is over with the awakening kiss: Now we want to forget the Fairies and Carabosse—and celebrate. The divertissement is a happy coda to the drama, and a standard device of 19th-century classical ballet. Oddly enough, Petipa turns out to have been a better dramaturge than Michael Chernov.
THERE WERE TWO Aurora debuts. Tiny Sarah Lane is a highly polished dancer with a pretty line and a lot of assurance, but her main advantage here is that she’s small enough to partner Herman Cornejo. His Prince was a paragon of classical elegance and ease. Other guys manage double air turns with greater or lesser facility; his are totally effortless and smooth, from perfect tight fifth position back to perfect tight fifth position without a hint of difficulty. The Apollonian security of these turns masks the virtuoso element, so that they’re even more beautiful than they are exciting. Why, though, given the welcome decision to match him with Sarah Lane, did the company land him with a Countess practically a head taller than he is? Such are the mysteries of ABT.
Although Michele Wiles in her New York debut as Aurora seemed a touch distrait in Act I, at times a stranger to the music, she was movingly remote and alluring in the Vision Scene, and she had a touch of the requisite expressive grandeur in the big pas de deux. Wiles was helped by the support of the noble David Hallberg as her Prince, and they were both strengthened in the Vision Scene by the presence of Veronika Part as their Lilac Fairy.
This is Part’s finest role. She has the necessary stature, and her plush, regal beauty accentuates her ability to project the two qualities essential to a Lilac: a commanding gravity and an expansive, beneficent generosity. Usually I deplore Part’s studied ballerina-ness and slack footwork, but here she was glorious. How weird (and how ABT) that last year she was the opening-night Aurora, a role for which she’s disastrously inappropriate.
A WORD ABOUT Don Quixote—unlike The Sleeping Beauty, a work with absolutely no resonance, yet, when well cast, a delight. Of Xiomara Reyes’ Kitri, I can say that she worked hard, but her flair is pasted on and artificial. Again, Cornejo’s Basilio was a splendor. But Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel ignited the whole ballet—they just nailed it. Murphy’s acting gets better and better, and her technique and phrasing are so strong that she can play with the music (Minkus’ delightful oom-pah-pah score) in a way that hides the lack of variety of the actual steps Kitri is given. And Basilio is the perfect naughty-boy vehicle for that devil Stiefel.
A lot of performers looked good in Don
Q, including the dedicated and refined corps. The senior Victor Barbee (a vital presence as the King in The Sleeping Beauty) was impressive as the Don himself. Melissa Thomas was ravishingly beautiful as the Queen of the Dryads, and she was technically secure in her demanding solo. I’d love to see her in a ballerina role—say, Cinderella, if ABT had a Cinderella worth seeing anyone in. Anne Milewski was a charming and strong Amour—playful without being cloying.
As for the irrepressible Craig Salstein, his buoyant self-satisfied fool of a Gamache was a revelation—at first. But he never stopped; it was bit after bit after bit after bit of clever business, always interesting but increasingly obtrusive, particularly when he distracted the eye from the principals. If the ballet masters keep letting him get away with this kind of upstaging, don’t be surprised if his colleagues take a lesson from the pianist in Jerome Robbins’s The Concert and come after him with a butterfly net.