American Ballet Theatre Premieres Ratmansky’s Pageant-Rich Imperial Ballet “Sleeping Beauty”

There are two ways to cover the ballet classics. One is the reimagined staging and narrative that leaves behind any pretense at a faithful copy.  Successful versions of Russian classics in this vein by Bourne, Murphy, and Maillot have all appeared recently on Southland stages. The other is cleaving to the original through scholarship, hand-me-down choreography, and certifying the product with the after Petipa seal of approval.  ABT’s new Sleeping Beauty adopts the latter method but in spades with a gorgeous production built truly from scratch using primary source notations from late nineteenth century versions of “Sleeping Beauty” at the Mariinsky Theatre.  It avoids traditionally recycled choreography and gives modern audiences what the authentic performance practice crowd in music has had for decades: a performance that looks and feels like the original without decades of stylistic revision.

 The differences were everywhere apparent.  Most notably the men are more grounded. Spectacular aerial jumps and virtuosic turning are dimished in favor of less extroverted dancing. Some changes seem to accommodate costume choices (the four suitors in Act I are an example) that at times encumber them.  It looks generally dialed back to modern eyes. Standard practices such as the knee-high passé have been amended and lowered, while the linked turns for the women are almost always on half toe. There is also a heightened emphasis on carriage and courtly deportment. Call it a kind of reeducation in style. On Tuesday’s opening night performance some of those changes looked still not quite in hand.

The mime too has been given more prominence, as well as the port de bras and gestures of the arms (especially among the women) which were more generously expressive than usual. When the Prince is at a loss for waking the Princess, the Lilac Fairy (played reassuringly by the regal Veronika Part) grazes her temple with her finger tip. “Figure it out. Use your head.” The gesture itself was beautiful and carried all the necessary detail, but it also alerted us to enter into that world, to pay attention and decipher the code. Perhaps the biggest surprise were the many children who had real and often complex dancing duties. From the band of fiddle playing pages to the Garland Waltz children, their charm and excellence were contagious.

The Tchaikovsky ballets have always been imbued with a certain threshold for pageantry but that fact can’t really prepare you for the extravagance Ratmansky has unleashed. This production brims with spectacular costuming.  It becomes something substantial in itself and not, as is often the case, an obligatory prelude to eventual dancing. Fantastically enriched by Richard Hudson’s towering Piranesian sets, luxurious monochrome designs, and sumptuous costuming based on Leon Bakst and the Ballets Russes, the production’s huge cast supplies and endless stream of colorful characters, soloists, royalty, a sorceress  with an entourage of rats, and “fantastics”. Particularly fine was the spectacle ladden Garland Waltz from Act I (liberally loaded with children and tiered in size from front to back company dancers), the corps de ballet Nymphs from Act II, and the impossibly dashing military Mazurka dancers, twelve couples in all, from Act III.  Once in motion, they swept across the stage with a palpable sense of old world elegance and refinement.

Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes in the principal roles were exceptional and brought all the virtuosity you could want to the Act III Grand Pas de Deux. The costuming for Princess Aurora, (a variety of knee length tutus) and Prince Désiré (knee length pants) harkened back to styles popular with original productions. The tutus for the women throughout were longer and beautifully proportioned to accommodate the ballet’s movement aesthetic– reduced athleticism, accompanied by stylish beaten footwork. Also giving exceptional performances were Skylar Brandt as the flickering Canari qui chante, Nancy Raffa as the garish, born-evil sorceress Carabosse, and the third act duos of Princess Florine and The Bluebird (Cassandra Trenary/Daniil Simkin), and the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots ( Isadora Loyola/ Sean Stewart). And dare I mention Hop-o’-my Thumb and his tiny band of brothers who together created a swaggering Spanky and Our Gang for the Imperial era.  The first rate music was led by ABT Music Director Ormsby Wilkins with the members of the Pacific Symphony.

Alexei Ratmansky, ABT’s resident choreographer, is a born storyteller for dance. There is really no one in classical dance as prolific, or who matches his breadth. And whether he is surveying a Christmas war horse, life down on the Soviet collective, or the Parisian demi monde, he realizes ballets that resonate deeply with both dancers and audiences.  Time will tell if this “Sleeping Beauty” restaging will shift affection away from the kind of classical dance we’ve become accustomed to. In the meantime, here we have the whole ballet, uncut, and wrapped in an undeniably brilliant package. This is the way it once was. It’s still persuasive performance for any era.  

(The reviewed performance took place on March 3, 2015 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. Ormsby, Hudson, and lighting designer James Ingalls joined a beaming Ratmansky onstage for the thronging curtain calls. “Sleeping Beauty” is an Amercan Ballet Theatre co-production with Teatro alla Scala with additional support from Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Performances continue through Sunday.)

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