Diana Vishenva in Alexei Ratmansky's “Sleeping Beauty” for American Ballet Theatre. Photograph by Gene Schiavone

Beauty Sleep

Alexei Ratmansky's “Sleeping Beauty” for American Ballet Theatre

Performance
American Ballet Theatre: “The Sleeping Beauty” by Alexei Ratmansky
Place
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, California, March 3-8, 2015
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

Contrary to Mae West’s delicious quip, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful,” choreographer and ABT Artist in Residence, Alexei Ratmansky, whose interpretation of the iconic fairy tale landed in Orange County stuffed with ballet stars, sequins and sky-high wigs, this over-the-top world premiere is somewhat of a snooze. Blame, too, must be placed on Richard Hudson’s elaborate sets and costumes, which, although inspired by Léon Bakst’s 1921 Ballets Russes production,“The Sleeping Princess,” might be better suited to Las Vegas or Macao, where spectacle is the norm but taste is generally tossed aside.

Ratmansky, 46, had said that he’d long wanted to choreograph a version of “The Sleeping Beauty,” believing that Tchaikovsky’s glorious score and Marius Petipa’s choreography, which first bowed in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1890 and was an instant classic, represented the highest achievement of Russian classical art. And Ratmansky, whom the New York Times chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, has called, “the most gifted choreographer specializing in classical ballet today,” has certainly created his share of first-rate works.

This “Beauty,” however, made for ABT’s 75th anniversary (in conjunction with Milan’s La Scala), is not among them.

Bringing its big balletic guns, ABT had no less than five principal casts, including Diana Vishneva’s sparkling Aurora and Marcelo Gomes’s Prince Désiré. The apotheosis of nobility, Gomes’ sovereign is possessed with beating feet to burn. Also seen by this reviewer: Nancy Raffa’s fiercely funny Carabosse (think Meryl Streep’s recent witchy turn from Into the Woods), and Veronika Part, whose Lilac Fairy underwhelmed, particularly when she traded her tutu for a tiered gown and white wig, making her look more like a madam running a brothel than a redeemer of royalty.

Ballet master and veteran company member, Victor Barbee, comported himself with peevish flair as King Florestan, not to mention his flaunting of a Liberace-like cape (the late entertainer’s catch phrase, “Too much of a good thing is never enough,” again proved to be the opposite in this bloated rendering). His Queen, Ratmansky’s wife, Tatiana, who also assisted her husband in coaching duties, had the unenviable task of sporting an Elsa Lanchesterish “Bride of Frankenstein” wig that, in the final act was nest to a menorah-like tiara(?).

But let’s rewind to the Prologue and Christening, when we were transported to the opulent era of Louis XIV, itself a testament to overkill. Here baby Aurora is blessed by her genteel godmother fairies, including Sarah Lane (Natalie Portman’s double, responsible but uncredited for 85% of the dancing she actually performed in Black Swan), and Stella Abrera, who both bourréed and hopped on pointe before the wicked Carabosse cursed the infant.

Miming was rife, with Ratmansky also not straying far from Petipa’s original choreography (as read from Vladimir Stepanov’s notes), the steps more often than not, repetitive and, to a degree, restrained.

Did we say that the production, which moves to ABT’s home, the Metropolitan Opera House in late May, is a study in swollen extravagance? In truth, throughout this “Beauty,” one felt claustrophobic merely ogling the overcrowded stage: All told there were some 70 company members and upwards of 100 supernumeraries, including attendants, nurses, courtiers, pages, guards, guests, and kiddies, the children, no doubt, a product of ABT’s William J. Gillespie School at the Center, which opened in January.

But back to the pomp-filled proceedings: Celebrating her 16th birthday, Aurora, in the famous Rose Adagio sequence, is slowly twirled by four suitors—princes of Spanish, English, Italian and Indian descent, the turbaned Roman Zhurbin looking especially cartoonish, with Vishneva not holding balance as long as one would have liked. Still, a supremely talented artist, with her pliant torso, willowy arms and ferocious yet fluid technique, La Vishneva holds the stage, the audience completely in her thrall.

Act I also features Tchaikovsky’s lush Garland Waltz, another instance, though, of terpsichorean inflation: Dozens of dancers, including a big brood of tykes, brandished floral wreaths, with on-the-beat moves akin to pom-pom wielding cheerleaders. The adolescent Violin Pages—their stick-like legs accentuated in red tights—added to the theatrical jumble before Aurora succumbed to Carabosse’s spell.

Pricking her finger, Vishneva convincingly crumbled to the floor (shades of Elizabeth Taylor’s fainting scene in A Place in the Sun), a limp rag doll that is carried offstage on what resembled a hospital stretcher.

Act II—the Hunt, the Vision, the Awakening—gave us nymphs, dukes, duchesses, marquises and—at last—Gomes, albeit looking a bit Napoleonic but a joy to behold, his feet wondrously articulated, his every move filled with regal splendor. When Vishneva appeared and was finally alone on a stage that didn’t look like an episode of Hoarders, she soared in her solo before eventually awakened with that kiss.

The final act, the Wedding, included divertissements galore, perhaps too many: Yes, a beaming, calf-centric Misty Copeland as Princess Florine, showed her mettle in what little she had to do, while the Bluebird (Gabe Stone Shayer), in his solo, dutifully executed those pesky entrechats, but with little excitement; Isadora Loyola and Sean Stewart requisitely amused as the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, but was it necessary to give us a bland, before-the-ball Cinderella (Gemma Bond) and her Prince Fortune (Sterling Baca)?

Also excessive, if not superfluous: more characters from Petipa’s original, ballet, including Porcelain Princesses, Mandarin, Scheherazade and Shah and his Brother. One wondered, ‘Where were the dancing elephants?’ What was gobs of fun, however, was the rarely seen Hop-o’my-Thumb dance, with Richard Bowman and Benjamin Travis as the über Ogre and Ogress, the former brandishing a cleaver and scaring the bevy of adorable boys reminiscent of the Dead End Kids.

In their lovely, long-awaited Grand Pas, Vishneva and Gomes did deliver, with the Brazilian a worthy partner, beautifully accommodating Vishneva’s series of mercurial fish dives, their respective solos, replete with airy leaps and pirouettes, enchanting.

Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of this “Beauty” was akin to an assault on the senses. Hudson, who won a Tony Award for scenic design for “The Lion King,” may make reference to Bakst’s riotous colors and patterns, but the costumes—fashioned from satin, lace, brocade and lamé to feathers and cheesy-looking crowns that could have come from the .99 store, including chapeaux-cum-mortarboards (who was graduating?)—proved more of a distraction than an enhancement.

ABT’s music director, Ormsby Wilkins, led a mostly lackluster Pacific Symphony, the occasional harp arpeggio aside. What should have given more oomph to the production, the live music almost seemed dwarfed by the chaos onstage.

Whatever the case, “Sleeping Beauty” has been aroused from her slumber. We’ve recently had Angelina Jolie as Maleficent (the tale told from the villain’s point of view), as well as Matthew Bourne’s singular take—a dazzler with vampires and a recalcitrant princess who looked like she conked out for a century courtesy of Propofol. Even Los Angeles Ballet, founded in 2006, is currently celebrating the sacked-out royal with a new production choreographed by husband and wife co-directors, Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen.

As for the Ratmansky/ABT extravaganza, it might best be experienced after downing a couple of NoDoz.

  1. … and La Looseleaf happens to be major LA art critic? Ouch! The way she let herself loose on this important reconstruction (for lady, that’s what it is – your easy sneers make me think you expected something else) is obviously not embedded in knowledge of ballet history nor love for the subject.

    1. 19th century Tsarist grand ballets (hence the word GRAND) are supposed to be a “swollen extravagance”, & Sleeping Beauty should be among the most extravagantly swollen of them all. Unfortunately modern day ballet audiences have gotten used to pretentious choreography à la Nureyev & little-to-nothing-on-stage productions. The horrible idea of “less-is-more”, which everyone in the world of the performing arts today has adopted as their personal mantra, has no business in the theatre, much less ballet theatre.

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Anouk van Dijk
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