Review: American Ballet Theatre’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ at The Kennedy Center

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Alexei Ratmansky’s newest staging of the great classical ballet The Sleeping Beauty feels like that moment in the classic MGM film The Wizard of Oz when the scene goes from black and white to Technicolor. Ratmansky has returned color, style and detail to the warhorse 1890 ballet, which, has, over succeeding decades, lost its identifying roots. Ballet, of course, is passed down from generation to generation orally, from retiring dancer to young dancer, from teacher to student, so like a game of telephone, sense and details can get lost, dropped or simply ignored because fashion and stylistic preferences change.

Isabella Boylston as Princess Aurora and Joseph Gorak as Prince DŽsirŽ in Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: MIRA.
Isabella Boylston as Princess Aurora and Joseph Gorak as Prince DŽsirŽ in Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty.’ Photo by MIRA.

For American Ballet Theatre’s 2014 production, which is on stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday, January 31st, and premiered two years ago in Costa Mesa, Calif., the beauty is in the details, the small moments, the living tableaux stager Ratmansky paints. The ballet is both outsized and restrained in Ratmansky’s sure hand. The Russian-born and trained artist in residence at ABT is known and loved for his contemporary works, but he’s also an historian, a ballet sleuth, and for this production he searched the archives at Harvard University and  in St. Petersburg, Russia, to suss out what the ballet could have looked like in 1890 at its premiere in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, or a generation later in the early 1900s when Diaghilov’s Ballets Russes acquired and performed the work.

The story, at least its bones, is nearly universally known, if not from storybooks then from Disney. But this version is more than simply a fairy tale retold. Created for the Russian czar’s court, the world of the ballet models the social and economic hierarchy of that era and tells us much about the workings of the upper class, the 1 percent if you will, amid the storybook unfolding of the prologue and three acts.

Most frequently lost in classical ballets, particularly when they made their way west to North America, has been the mime, which is essential for the narrative and dramatic elements of the classical ballet canon. Without the story and mime, it’s all merely divertissements – pure dancing, and for a time that’s what audiences wanted. But these days, the trend it back to narrative. Ratmansky, with the assistance of his wife Tatiana, has resuscitated mime passages that have been rarely if ever seen in recent decades, illuminating the story in new ways. We see a conversation between King Floriestan (Roman Zhurbin) and Catalabutte (Alexei Agoudine), his chief minister, that helps us clearly understand the hierarchies at stake in the royal court. A little later in the prologue, when the uninvited evil fairy Carabosse enters, there is a snippet of mimed dialogue where the good Lilac Fairy asks her evil counterpart why she’s so angry. Carabosse answers – a bit of mime I’ve never seen – then begins plucking out hairs of Catalabutte.

The dancing, too, has a renewed vigor, though present-day audiences will find few grand and virtuosic tricks. The women don’t raise their legs to ear-grazing heights and the men don’t soar in sweeping leaps and 540 degree barrel turns. Equilibrium restores moderation and attention to the details of smaller, complex footwork are what brighten and color this ballet. While we often think that ballet technique has advanced in the past 100 years, there are elements that have been lost.

Marius Petipa, the French-born émigré to Russia responsible for much of the classical ballet canon from Sleeping Beauty to Swan Lake to The Nutcracker and Raymonda, apparently had specific ideas and distinctions he practiced on the placement of feet and legs. Ratmansky has uncovered those to great effect.

In this setting, the legs rarely go above 90 degrees, lending a greater notion of geometric purity to the way the body moves and poses – particularly the female body. There’s an abiding sense of restraint and purity to the women’s solos. And the partnered balances, especially the famous “Rose Adagio,” where the princess plucks a rose from each suitor’s hand before sticking a breath-catching balance on one leg, is less outlandish and more queenly and staid here. As well, the foot, particularly the woman’s foot, is not just pointed or flatly bearing weight. There are times when weight is borne on the metatarsal, dancers call it demi-pointe, something little seen in modern ballet where emphasis is on highly defined pointe work.. And the bent working leg, especially in pirouettes, doesn’t always rise to the knee here – sometimes it remains held at the ankle or at mid-calf. These are not mistakes but conscious choices uncovered in the Petipa notes from Ratmansky’s research.

Aside from the ballet geek details, the larger scope of this production is one of courtly grandeur. The backdrops and sets of castles and palace interiors by Richard Hudson are grandly austere, a bit less colorful than the hundreds of costumes – accented by wigs and shoes – also by Hudson but inspired by the Ballets Russes costumes of Leon Bakst. There are no short classical-style tutus a la the pancake-like circle of netting popularized in Swan Lake. Instead the ladies’ tutus are bell-shaped in the Romantic style and hover just above the knee, again adding a sense of grace and restraint. The score, Tchaikovsky’s of course, is played well by The Kennedy Center’s orchestra under the baton of Ormsby Wilkins. And the gaggle of local children, dancing as pages, courtiers and the like, have been beautifully rehearsed by Maryland Youth Ballet teacher Rhodie Jorgenson.

The dancing, of course, matters most for audiences here and the opening night cast did not disappoint. Stella Abrera replaced Veronika Part in the important role of the Lilac Fairy on opening night. Russian-trained Part is a cool and staunch ballerina and would have brought those qualities to the role. Abrera brought a sense of openness and even joy to her pivotal portrayal. Though not overly elegant, and sturdier than Part, she carried off the nearly god-like demeanor demanded of the latter acts when equilibrium is restores the courtly order, for it is her spell that causes the young Princess Aurora not to die at the spindle prick but sleep 100 years awaiting the kiss of her prince charming.

As Princess Aurora, Isabella Boylston exhibited both joy and restraint, not terribly girlish, but she was kind and gentle. Her prince, Desire, danced by Joseph Gorak on Wednesday night, was attentively steadfast and, as noted, he doesn’t have many show-off moves, but his footwork, particularly the fleet foot beats, was admirable, if not perfect.

Marcelo Gomes’ evil fairy Carabosse relished being equal parts conniving and lustfully malicious. Stooped and Disney-scary, he played the bad witch with relish. As notable in Petipa’s Beauty are the many variations for the attendant fairies and, in the final act, the fairy tale characters – Little Red Riding Hood, the Bluebird, Puss and Boots, Cinderella, etc. — each has a noteworthy variation with lovely steps specific to who the dancer is portraying.

Scene from Alexei Ratmansky's 'The Sleeping Beauty. ' Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Scene from Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty. ‘ Photo by Gene Schiavone.

American Ballet Theatre typically does a run-of-the-mill job with the old school Petipa classics. It mounted a ho-hum Sleeping Beauty in 2007 with staging by its Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland and  her husband Michael Chernov. Ratmansky has returned Beauty to, it seems, a previous glory and grandeur.

The ABT dancers have tackled the challenges of the more restrained and pure technique and have acclimated themselves wonderfully to the specificity of the mime. As a whole the dancers have a sturdy, solid look, both corps de ballet and principals, which works impeccably well, rather than the gaunt, idealized thinness of late-20th century ballet dancers (here I’m thinking of the Mariinsky’s 1999 revival). The ABT dancers stand and move on solid ground. They may struggle or wobble in a balance, but they are human beings. Yes, they’re playing fairies and kings and courtiers, who are all striving for a godlike elegance, that’s a distinction that makes this ballet, for all its restraint and detail and historicity, a most satisfying evening.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes.

American Ballet Theatre: Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty plays through Sunday, January 31, 2016 at The American Ballet Theatre performing at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or toll free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

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Lisa Traiger
An arts journalist since 1985, Lisa Traiger writes frequently on the performing arts for Washington Jewish Week and other local and national publications, including Dance, Pointe, and Dance Teacher. She also edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal. She was a freelance dance critic for The Washington Post Style section from 1997-2006. As arts correspondent, her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week where she has reported on Jewish drum circles, Israeli folk dance, Holocaust survivors, Jewish Freedom Riders, and Jewish American artists from Ben Shahn to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim to Y Love, Anna Sokolow to Liz Lerman. Her dance writing can also be read on DanceViewTimes.com. She has written for Washingtonian, The Forward, Moment, Dance Studio Life, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Atlanta Jewish Times, and Washington Review. She received two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association; a 2009 shared Rockower for reporting; and in 2007 first-place recognition from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She holds an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has taught dance appreciation at the University of Maryland and Montgomery College, Rockville, Md. Traiger served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-2007. She was a member of the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau from 2008-2009.