Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sleepers Awake: American Ballet Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty


Because of its technical otherworldliness, ballet literally lifts our mythologies into other realms, which is where they belong and which are better places for them to be “read.” The story of the princess/goddess who sleeps and must be brought back so that we on earth can experience balance – a transformation after a resurrection – is the story of Eurydice or of Persephone, and it has been handed down to us as one of the most cherished romantic ballets. Indeed, Sleeping Beauty is one of the most glorious celebrations of the goddess of spring (the word “Easter” comes from the goddess “Astarte”). And there is plenty of influence this ballet has had on the art world; for one thing, it inspired two 9-year-old boys, Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine, to pursue music and ballet.

So why do ballet companies keep cutting this ballet from four hours to two hours? Because they think we won’t sit still for it and that we’ll miss our train and that we’ll be bored. The Sleeping Beauty is the story of the incredible excitement over the birth of a girl (did you ever?) and about what happens to her and her realm, and it is a metaphor for how we reach enlightenment, justice, and true love. Part of our mythology, transferred to centuries of folk legend and then to ballet and other dramatic forms, it’s worth a little investment of time. The ballet has a long and extraordinary history. Even so, an abridged version can be a good idea: The cutting can be judicious and cause us to notice something we hadn’t before. Sometimes, as in the case of the American Ballet Theatre’s production, it’s just unfortunate.

Case in point: Although the ballet ends with the triumph of Aurora and her prince, the prince’s part is generally cut these days under the misguided assumption that women are the point (sorry) of this and other romantic ballets. But we need the men’s stories; they are integral to the myths behind them. If the character of Prince Desiré (as he is typically named) is left out, we know nothing about why 100 years has to pass before Aurora can wake up, we don’t know the reason for the transformation and what it changes, and we assume, wrongly, that the story is simply about one-upping a bad fairy, which it isn’t.

The prince represents, among other things, an improvement in human wisdom over that of Aurora’s father, whose ignorance causes the whole dilemma. The older fairy Carabosse is not invited to Aurora’s christening, and she takes revenge by prophesying Aurora’s death by spindle, a symbol of fate, which the king thinks he can overrule by banning spindles from his kingdom. Of course, he cannot trick fate, and his kingdom is lost along with the princess into the sleep of death.

When we do come across the prince in ABT’s production, he is doing what princes typically do in ballets: hunting, and he and his court play a game of Blind Man’s Bluff. When blindfolded, ie, blind, like any ancient prophet, the prince envisions Aurora’s castle and, then, Aurora herself. The prince is no incidental cipher in the story; he’s connected to Orpheus (as well as to male characters in the ballets La Sonnambula and even Balanchine’s Serenade). [George Balanchine’s entire point of view for much of his repertory was Orpheus and the prince in Act II of Sleeping Beauty.] The prince is the searching, melancholy prince, lacking something but not certain what, who upon seeing the vision of Aurora, and realizing that this vision satisfies his restlessness, sets out to find her and battle the obstacles. The trouble is, in cutting any insight into his role and the relationship between the prince and Aurora, ABT’s production misses a major poetic point: With the male in ascendance, so to speak, the female is available only in dream, her power quiescent. During the vision scene, he cannot touch her – and then he can. Why? Obviously, he has entered her realm, but it’s not just another segment of the dance that’s been handed down (ie, we do it because they did it). No, this is an important dramatic idea, and it must be made meaningful to audiences. Ballet can do this, as it is physically metaphorical and visual at the same time. So do it!

When the prince and princess finally come together, having awakened to a new wisdom, they take the throne together to rule in harmony (a revolutionary point since the king and queen are still alive!), heralding an age of enlightenment. But if you don’t know what they’ve gone through, and the production is just the “high spots”: christening, prophecy, rose adagio, curse, sleep, kiss, the end…this story is just a little golden bookish. Not only are huge swaths cut out of Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score, but we’ve been deprived of our own sense that something is missing and needs restoration, ie, the story. When they cut the prince’s knowledge that he’s missing something, and what might be at the root of it, they’re cutting us off, too.

In the interests of saving us time, then, the well intentioned ABT runs the risk of wasting it. This particular Sleeping Beauty, when it premiered in 2007, had a little trouble at first (it has been heavily revised), but it did awaken Gelsey Kirkland to return to ABT and that was perhaps a good instinct, although perhaps not the right person. Kirkland’s Stanislavskian tendencies may have driven Baryshnikov up the wall, but her insistence on infusing every step and every gesture and movement of the body with the character’s life, ie, every movement must have a reason, is necessary in contemporary romantic ballet because of this business of condensing them. I could see small examples of attention paid to such details. Even such a small segment as the King’s (Roman Zhurbin’s) fury at finding a spindle after he’d expressly forbidden them in his kingdom is clear without waving of arms and indignant looks but with the intelligent movement of his whole body.

Most ballet productions, as does this one, now do away with mime or cut it to a minimum believing the audience won’t understand it (Wrong! I saw a children’s production of Sleeping Beauty that emphasized the mime and in fact taught some to the audience, which the audience adored doing). Mime is distinctly related to the old Delsarte poses of nineteenth century theater history, which also influenced ballet in an attempt to link genuine emotion to the body. In romantic ballet, characters in first acts are usually defined by mime, or are “on the ground”, and in last acts by character variations (having reconciled air and ground). There are poetic and traditional reasons for this, but mime and the various character variations are the sections that contemporary productions tend to do away with, as they only appear to have little to do with the plot. This leaves the weight of storytelling to the dance alone. So if you’re going to cut the mime and the character variations, someone in charge with dramatic sensitivities becomes more important, for dancers need to think through their characters as well as perform turns on pointe and breathtaking leaps. The dance itself must convey the dramatic points through the dance rather than depend on any exposition. This is difficult when so many ballet companies think they are following a Balanchine model by separating dance from story consistently. The premise for this is false, but that’s a topic for another time. It is not enough to just dance, and it’s not enough to just act.

The evening I was at ABT, Aurora was danced by Xiomara Reyes, and she was absolutely enchanting. I could easily believe that this joyful, energetic bubbly girl full of life and curiosity and grace was sixteen. During the rose adagio, in which she meets and greets her suitors from the four corners of the earth (costume-wise, they all looked the same to me), she grew in understanding, grace, and balance (famously tested here) as she greeted each one. Even her finger movements varied, and they seemed to extend from her heart. She eventually danced full out, brimming over with happiness as she gained poise and hope, for what was there to fear? Well -- perhaps the conductor, Charles Barker, who took the tempo so-gotta-catch-my-train fast that Reyes’ phrasing, so expressive, couldn’t always complete the dance thought.

Maria Riccetto brought a warm grace to the role of the Lilac Fairy, and Nancy Raffa was marvelously maleficent as Carabosse, the crone and fairy, who appears and disappears with nice effects of fire and smoke. Herman Cornejo portrayed a solid, substantive prince, thoroughly capable of taking on Carabosse and making his way to the princess with solid dancing. These performers were quite capable of carrying through the dramatic intent of their role in the ballet.

Dramatic care was taken with the first act, but then things started breaking down. The trouble came in the vision scene, when the attitudes of Aurora to the prince lacked clarity. Characterization appeared to break down in a seeming rush to get to the party. This haste had a cascade effect on the final pas de deux: The steps were there, as were some flashes of character, but either the happy couple had it and lost it, or they didn’t have it yet. The battle with Carabosse also needed clarity. It was clear there was a battle and that Carabosse lost, but how either the Lilac Fairy or Prince Desiré were instrumental in that was anyone’s guess. It must have been fate.

This too consistent efficiency was evident in the visual aspect of the production. Tony Walton’s scenery (does this man get any sleep?) was quite lovely if literal in the first acts; his scenery for the last act was a little too lacy and “land of the sweets”, not to mention noisy – I thought Carabosse was coming back as a monster as the set changed for the last act. I liked the vibrant colors of costumes in the first acts, and in the last act, the Louis XIV-era costumes of the courtiers dazzled, but the women’s gowns looked hard to dance in. From a visual viewpoint, it didn’t seem that anyone was interested in the story, just putting out another ballet for the schedule.

Ah, and yet. Brief as it is, the Prince’s kiss is still profoundly moving. The kingdom transforms, the people wake up, and the prince and princess balance slowly and surely during the increasingly profound pas de deux, with the gentlest of fish dives. When they took their places in reigning stead, I knew they meant business.

One thing that should also be clear: As Aurora awakens, the fairy tale world comes alive again. Seeing these characters is an important part of the celebration. That’s part of the ballet tradition, it’s also part of the giddiness that results from the grand triumph of rebirth, and there is mythic justification for their resurrection. But aside from introducing a few characters (Cinderella and Prince Charming, Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Puss ’N Boots and his girlfriend), the variations for these characters were cut to mere walk ons. The Bluebird and Princess Florine (Sascha Radetsky and Hee Seo) got to dance a nice variation, but the visionaries behind this production must have felt that if you’ve seen one variation, you’ve seen them all, and that was the one we got. When the prince and princess began their pas de deux, I found myself looking down at the program, incredulous that the dancers had made such an error. Hadn’t our little party just begun?

Well, here’s a suggestion, ABT: If you really want to make some cuts - Cut everything, cut the fancy scenery and the mime and the story and just about all the dancing, but keep in the search and the maturing, and you’ve got…Balanchine’s Duo Concertant, which is about 20 minutes if you take the tempo slowly. But American Ballet Theatre needs the full ballet alongside Duo, we as an audience need the full Sleeping Beauty, and an intelligent, poetic production of it. Well, I’m sure ABT’s working on it.

American Ballet Theatre’s Production of The Sleeping Beauty: Staged by Kevin McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland, and Michael Chernov, after Marius Petipa. Music by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. Set by Tony Walton. Costumes by Willa Kim, with Additional Designs by Holly Hynes. American Ballet Theatre’s spring season extends to July 3. Tickets are available through the company’s Web site,, or at the box office at The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.

Singer/writer Mary Sheeran’s novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 ( Her next novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year. She has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory.

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