– said Mrs. Allen to Fred while carefully articulating her mispronunciation. And it was funny, because everyone knew that Fred wasn’t expecting Sleeping Beauty (or whatever celebrity Mrs. Allen mispronounced) to walk through the door on Allen’s Alley during the old Texaco broadcasts.
That scene came to mind during Act I of ABT’s premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s new production of Sleeping Beauty last night at the Segerstrom Center. A hybrid rose, for sure, and ocassionally more shrubby than tea-like, this new interpretation throws some fragrant blooms while eschewing virtuosity in favor of the type of geeky humor that appears in other of Ratmansky’s work. A desire to make a joke or ridicule an idea - in a harmless way of course - frequently seeps into his work, whether it belongs there, such as in The Bright Stream, or doesn’t, such as in his Cinderella. Like his Cinderella and Clara in The Nutcracker, Aurora now is a little bit ditsy and overly-adorable. That was Diana Vishneva’s interpretation last night.
Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty premiered in 1890, but it was not until a dozen or so years later that the then current version of the choreography was preserved in Stepanov notation form. It is this 1903 notation from which Ratmansky has drawn as much as practical for this new production. A dozen years is a long time for a ballet to simmer and absorb seasoning from competitive dance flavorists around the world. We might worry how closely the Stepanov notes reveal Petipa’s original intentions, but that would be a waste of time - like wondering whether the delicious cake on the plate before us compares favorably to our great-great grandmother’s which we never tasted, and never will, but whose recipe served as the basis for the cake on our plate. Even if we were handed the Encyclopedic Cookbook of Choreography that ensured us that we had every step and ingredient of Petipa’s 1890 Sleeping Beauty, we still would not experience the ballet the way audiences experienced it 125 years. Ingredients have changed.
The 21st century dancers are different physically. They are leaner, longer, and are trained with different aesthetic priorities than a century ago. The shoes ballerinas wear in the 21st century are vastly different from those worn in prior centuries when the boxes were very pointed, the vamps were short, and the shanks and stiffening were far less supportive. Balancing on the tip of a pointe shoe in 1890 was likely more fleeting because it had to be. Pirouettes likely descended with some abruptness because the ballerina’s shoes wouldn’t support a lingering balance and a controlled roll through the foot.
Equipment always affects the aesthetic quality of a performance. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performs its music on period instruments in an effort to achieve a performance quality closer to that representative of the time in history when the music was composed. It is doubtful that there would be much of an audience for a Ballet of the Age of Enlightenment in which dancers wear period pointe shoes to achieve the airy quality of a time past, but it might be an interesting academic exercise to try out some of this old choreography with historically modeled equipment. After all, cake batter beaten with a wooden spoon results in a different texture cake than when the batter is blended at high speed in a Cuisinart mixer.
Of course, Ratmansky isn’t the first person to try to recover Petipa’s jewel of a ballet. In 1995, Anthony Dowell created the most exquisite production of Sleeping Beauty imaginable for the Royal Ballet based on what was known then about the Petipa choreography. Dowell had to fill in some big blanks, but it was clear that he was always thinking "WWPD?" rather than stirring up something from his own imagination. It didn’t hurt that Dowell had the perfect Aurora in the Royal Ballet’s Viviana Durante, an Italian ballerina of unusual imagination, intelligence and purity of form.
Four years later, the Mariinsky Ballet premiered a new production of Sleeping Beauty based on the Stepanov notations from the Sergeyev Collection. The choreographer in charge of restoring Sleeping Beauty’s original choreography was Sergei Vikharev, a Mariinsky principal with a deep interest in preserving Petipa’s works. Vikharev’s staging generated much controversy outside Russia where its authenticity was questioned, but there was no denying that it was an important reconstruction effort and that much of it was very enjoyable to watch. The latter was due in part to Vikharev’s selection of two of the Mariinsky’s youngest and brightest stars to lead the premiere performances as Aurora and The Lilac Fairy. Diana Vishneva and Veronika Part were in their early twenties and in their early years with the Mariinsky when Vikharev plucked them for his production. Their youth and beauty trumped their weaknesses and lack of experience, and the honesty of their efforts won a lot of people over.
Sixteen years later, Diana Vishneva and Veronika Part have again been tapped to lead a high profile reconstruction of Sleeping Beauty by Ratmansky. But it is not deja vu all over again, as Yogi would say. Ratmansky has said that the Stepanov notations provided clear information regarding the position of the legs and feet but almost nothing about the arms and head, which required him to fill in choreography. This is where the ballet falls into trouble. Unfortunately, instead of considering WWPD as Dowell did, Ratmansky opted to try to insert ill-fitting humor into the ballet.
During Act I of most productions, Aurora performs a variation with a series of double pirouettes on the diagonal in which the arms change from formal position to formal position. It may be that the Stepanov notations call for a single pirouette rather than a double, which would be understandable in 1903 and 1890. But would Petipa have called for the ballerina to intentionally clumsily drop off pointe after a quick single pirouette to make it look awkward and then peer over her shoulder at her parents as though looking for their approval? Then another awkward single pirouette. Then a quick double pirouette made to look like she just barely eked it out? If there was so little in the Stepanov notations about the arms and head, why would Ratmansky presume that Petipa was trying to make a joke out of the diagonal of pirouettes?
Even when Aurora made her first entrance, there was an adolescent awkwardness about her. There was no royally bred confidence and no suggestion of impeccable manners. She was a basic 16 year old who was interested in kicking up her heels at her birthday party. Vishneva put a lot of her face into this role, but a lot of times the dancing looked awkward and she made a strained effort to sell it and her adolescent cuteness to the audience.
The Act I balances were businesslike and tentative. Did Aurora acknowledge each Prince who came by to hold her hand? Not once; she was too busy concentrating on the balancing - literally. Aurora’s developpes were at a tasteful height, nicely turned out, and actually emphasized the beauty of her tutu by slightly extending its diameter when the fabric opened. But here, the harmony in the torso and port de bras were lacking. Nor did the position of the head contribute to any meaningful balletic line.
When Aurora traveled down the diagonal line of princes and stepped into a slight penche arabesque next to each, Vishneva stepped onto a flat foot instead of rolling down - just like she did in the 1999 Vikharev restoration, and it was pointless in more ways than one. Nobody’s demanding a pique, but a little bit of roll through the foot wouldn’t hurt.
The dialing back of virtuosity wasn’t all bad. The pirouettes with the working foot well below the knee complimented the silhouette of the costume. Had the working leg been at or above the knee, we would not have seen the foot or working leg shape because of the length of the costume. It was interesting to see some of the pirouettes end with the foot to the back with the toes flat against the floor instead of pointed. Aurora’s chaine turns were done on demi-pointe as must have been stipulated in the Stepanov notations. But it begs the question of why they were notated that way. Was it because the ballerinas of 1903 could not do fast chaines on pointe or was there a real aesthetic-related reason?
While the virtuosity was reduced in many places, it was increased in others. Prince Desire’s Act III solo followed the version notated in 1903 and reportedly danced by Nikolai Legat. It was packed with much more batterie than we are accustomed to seeing, including beats en tournant, and many brise vole which our prince, Marcelo Gomes, tackled with gusto. Why, in this wedding PdD there were overhead lifts like in Giselle, we don’t know. Have they been in the Stepanov notations all these years and overlooked or were they interpreted from old photos? Wherever they came from, they didn’t fit into the scheme of the choreography or the music.
Speaking of the Giselle-like lifts, some of the costumes for the ladies in Act I looked like they came right out of Act I of Giselle - kind of like these people were part of the 99% while Aurora along and her family were the 1%.
The new Sleeping Beauty is a costume spectacle. Designer Richard Hudson took his inspiration from the Bakst designs used in the 1921 Ballets Russes production of Sleeping Beauty. Much of the evening, the costumes overpowered the choreography - like too much sweet frosting on a cake. For the most part, they were gorgeous but the color scheme and variations in fabric were all over the place. Worst, though, were the not-quite white wigs that looked dreadful on our fairies who were wearing costumes that included a lot of white. Haglund loves wigs, but only when they contrast with what the dancer is wearing. We hate to keep throwing Dowell’s production up into everyone’s faces as being exemplary, but he got a lot of things right - including the use of wigs.
Our Lilac Fairy, Veronika Part, did not fare so well on opening night. The choreography for her Act I variation was neither that which she performed in the 1999 reconstruction at the Mariinsky nor was it what we have come to expect in modern productions, although the most difficult parts like the battement fouettes, seemed similar to Dowell’s production at the Royal Ballet. She was one of the few who looked smashing in her white wig which contrasted nicely with her lilac costume. But those fouettes and pirouettes were problematic.
Devon Teuscher (Candide), Misty Copeland (Fleur de farine), Sarah Lane (Miettes qui tombent), Skylar Brandt (Canari qui chante), and Stella Abrera (Violente) danced mostly traditional Prologue variations. There was some kind of an attempt to make Violente funny by having her begin with a long, stern stare out at the audience and by having her wear a head piece with long boingy things sticking up that looked like they were right off of the Bee’s costume from The Nutcracker. Stella danced exquisitely in her boingy things, her less than attractive costume, and an unpretty wig. There’s not much anyone can do to hide the beauty of her dancing.
Haglund was most impressed with the Lilac Fairy Attendants, Maids of Honor, and the Gold, Silver, and Sapphire Fairies. They were very consistent in style and uniform in execution while also being very pretty and personable. We’ve never seen a Diamond fairy look anything but clumsy and overdone, and last night was no exception; the focus of Isabella Boylston’s jumps were size, not form or quiet landings.
Daniil Simkin and Cassandra Trenary as the Bluebird and Princess Florine were fetching in their costumes and in their dancing. The choreography looked some how smoothed out, but we can’t put our finger on why. Perhaps that will become more evident in this evening’s performance. They each did a fine job, though.
Isadora Loyola and Sean Stewart were catabulous as The White Cat and Puss-in-Boots. Their entire variation seems to have been restored.
The HH Pump Bump is awarded to the ladies in the Corps de Ballet who achieved high points in both style and execution with a special nod to the Lilac Fairy Attendants.