George Balanchine had a special place in his heart for “The Sleeping Beauty.” It was a ballet that he always wanted to stage but never had the means—and the space—to do it properly; and he refused to do it on the budget. “He would put it on only if he could produce it on a scale comparable to “The Sleeping Beauty” whose enchantment he would never forget, the one he had appeared in as a boy in St. Petersburg, where the company had numbered some two hundred dancers and the stage had been grand enough for the most spectacular effects,” Bernard Taper described Balanchine’s sentiment towards this production in his excellent biography of the great choreographer.
Eventually New York City Ballet got its own “Beauty.” The ballet, which is rightly regarded as the touchstone of the 19th-century classicism and Tchaikovsky’s crown achievement, was premiered by the company in 1991, nearly 8 years after Balanchine’s death. This production was staged by NYCB’s ballet master in chief, Peter Martins and included Balanchine’s exquisitely ornate “Garland Dance,” which he created for the 1981 Tchaikovsky’s Festival.
There is much to admire about Martins’s thoroughly modern staging of “The Sleeping Beauty.” For one thing, this production is never dull and lethargic. There is nothing sleepy about this “Beauty.” It’s full of life, excitement, and vigor; and it tells the ballet’s story about a cursed Princess Aurora who falls into a century-long slumber with engaging flair and welcome efficiency; and the lavish costumes by Patricia Zipprodt and elaborate scenery by David Mitchell alone are worth the trip to the theater. Yet the greatest gift of this staging is its appreciation that “Beauty” is above all a ballet about classical dancing and here Petitpa’s ravishing choreography shines and sparkles in all its glory, mostly undiluted and unadorned.
However, there are certain drawbacks. If you want to soak up the magic of this fairytale; to fully experience the strong emotional currents of a struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, life and death (and it’s this struggle that ultimately forms the dramatic core of the entire ballet); to luxuriate in the perfume of the imperial era; and to indulge in the infinite pleasures of Tchaikovsky’s score – you might be bitterly disappointed. This “Beauty” is akin to a typical New Yorker navigating the morning rush-hour: cool, determined, and fast. Martins compressed the original material (nearly a four-hour show) into two acts, each lasting a little more than an hour. Forget the eloquent pantomime and delicate, aristocratic manners. The speed is the key to this no-nonsense “Beauty.”
Would Balanchine approve such a straightforward, modern approach to this beloved classic? It’s hard to tell. The choreographer took two very dissimilar approaches when it came to staging two other Tchaikovsky’s ballets. His sumptuous production of “The Nutcracker” was a spectacle on a grand scale, with all the pageantry and pantomime left intact. His version of “Swan Lake,” however, was a one-act distillation of the original production, where only dancing carried the highly abbreviated story line.
But watching the performance on Friday night, one thing I was certain of—Balanchine would be infinitely delighted to see these dancers in action. It seemed as if there was nothing that they couldn’t do—the sheer ease with which they sailed through some of the most physically and stylistically taxing choreography in the classical ballet canon was remarkable to witness; and their dedication and assuredness rendered this production with a totally different sense of grandeur. They kept the spirit of classicism alive, infusing it with unbound energy of our time.
The effervescent and radiant Tiler Peck danced the title role with a palpable sense of excitement and irresistible joy. She is a ballerina of an extraordinary musicality and it’s her immediate and intelligent responsiveness to the music that makes her dancing a rare art. From the first entrance of Aurora at her birthday celebration party, Peck inhabited her role completely. Her young heroine was everything that a coming-of-age princess should be: blissfully carefree and happy, and delightfully charming; and this sense of utter cheerfulness and youthful elation brightly reverberated in Peck’s dazzling footwork. Yet the ballerina also demonstrated her dramatic side. She was emotionally transformed in the famous Rose adagio, gliding from one arabesque to another with a wonderful legato phrasing and revealing the numerous intricacies of the choreography with serene lucidity and regal composure, her every step colored with lovely nuance and texture. In the Vision Scene, as her Aurora beckoned Prince Désiré to come to her rescue, Peck looked mysterious and phantom-like, with her dancing acquiring a feel of warmth and enigma.
In Martins’s staging, unfortunately, the Vision Scene is a very brief episode, almost entirely devoid of pantomime and of its original connotation of romantic yearning for ideal love; yet Peck, together with the ever-gracious Tyler Angle in the role of the Prince, made the most of it. A dancer of strong technique and impeccable manners, Angle proved a perfect cavalier. With a heavily truncated hunting party and the rushed and unremarkable scene of awakening, the Prince has little prominence in this production. The only real moment for him to shine is the wedding pas de deux in the final act and in it Angle was every inch of a Prince Charming, partnering Peck with confidence, stately poise, and alluring grace.
Perfectly capturing the essence of her character, Ashley Laracey imbued the role of the benevolent Lilac Fairy, who is a dazzling leader of the fairies and Aurora’s protector and savior, with dignified glamour and sumptuousness. From her entourage, Claire Kretzschmar as the Fairy of Generosity, Indiana Woodward as the Fairy of Eloquence and Unity Phelan as the Fairy of Courage made a particular impression. Rebecca Krohn had a marvelous turn as a pompous and harsh Carabosse, the evil fairy and a symbol of the dark forces, who puts a fateful curse on the baby Aurora and sends the royal household into disarray.
The wedding celebrations of Aurora and her Prince looked as if only half of the guests had shown up—a far cry from the enormous glittering crowd of courtiers and a long cavalcade of the fairytale characters that Balanchine so vividly remembered from his childhood in St. Petersburg. From those who did show up, Lauren King stood out as an impetuous Princess Florine; Ashley Isaacs and Brittany Pollack shone in the roles of Ruby and Emerald, respectively; and an adorable tiny dancer, Alessia Riera, ultimately stole the audience’s hears as a very brave and resourceful Little Red Riding Hood.