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In Pursuit of Petipa

American Ballet Theatre’s brand new production of “The Sleeping Beauty” proved the most anticipated and talked about event of the ABT’s spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, and the highest point of the company’s 75th anniversary celebrations. This birthday gift was orchestrated by Alexei Ratmansky, one of the most prominent and prolific choreographers in today’s ballet. Russian-born Ratmansky has been ABT’s artist-in-residence since 2009; “The Sleeping Beauty” is his most ambitious undertaking for the company to date.

Performance

American Ballet Theatre: “The Sleeping Beauty”

Place

Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY, June 8, 2015

Words

Oksana Khadarina

Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes in Alexei Ratmansky's “The Sleeping Beauty.” Photograph by Michael Khoury

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Over the years, ABT has been relentlessly trying to perfect its “Beauty.” This is the troupe’s fourth staging of the eminent classic in nearly four decades and perhaps the most expensive one. This six million dollar production was co-produced by Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, where it will travel next in September.

The uniqueness of Ratmansky’s production is in its authenticity. It brings us ever closer to Marius Petipa’s original version that had its premiere at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1890 and was justly regarded as the touchstone of the nineteenth century Russian classical ballet and the crown achievement of the great balletmaster.

In his quest to rediscover the elusive world of Petipa and to find out what his choreography looked like before it was called “after Petipa,” Ratmansky spent great deal of time in a library—the Harvard Theatre Collection—deciphering annotated “scores” (created by Vladimir Stepanov) of Petipa’s original steps and studying related archival materials: drawings, photographs and notes. He was assisted in this research by his wife, Tatiana Ratmansky, a former ballet dancer. (They met while performing with the Kiev Ballet in the 1980s.) Their findings became main building blocks of the new production.1

Mounting a ballet using an old 200-plus-page manuscript may seem like a tedious, risky task with the possibility of creating a museum relic—a listless artifact of a bygone time. On the contrary, Ratmansky’s “Beauty” is a viable and living artistic creation—a product of love, imagination, dedication and talent. It’s an opulent spectacle on a grand scale and a rare chance to appreciate the genuine classical ballet.

Unlike “La Bayadère” and “Swan Lake,” the tale of “The Sleeping Beauty” is short on drama; its central love story has little suspense and emotional tension. When the disgruntled evil fairy, Carabosse, avenges the shabby treatment (a non-invite to baby Aurora’s christening festivities) she suffered from the royal couple, she casts a curse according to which the Princess will prick her finger and die. The Lilac Fairy, Aurora’s god mother, almost immediately overrides the threat, saying that the Princess will not die but fall asleep; her Prince will come to awaken her with a kiss and the sun will shine again. (One must be a Petipa to stretch such a slim plot over a three-hour-long production and keep the audience engaged and entertained.)

By restoring every bit of pantomime found in the notations, Ratmansky enriched this production with sumptuous theatricality, infusing the narrative with poignancy, dramatic substance and a genuine sense of fairytale.

Ironically, of all the personages, Carabosse benefited the most from the additional mime given to her character. In the opening Prologue, the old and grumpy witch, her claws curling like a bunch of snakes, holds the audience lashed to their seats as she makes her triumphant entrance, spitting anger and malice. Most current productions portray Carabosse as a cartoonish creature, and throw in some visual effects (loud explosions and clouds of fog); but here, she makes herself truly memorable, having enough time to let everyone at the Court—and in the theater—know how absolutely displeased and revengeful she is.

The Vision scene is a real winner here. Modern stagings rush through the part of the ballet where the Prince, aided by the Lilac Fairy, sees a vision of the Princess and falls in love with her. As a result, it feels as if Aurora gets married to her Prince without really knowing him. In Ratmansky’s production, their love story is logically developed and beautifully told, and when the Prince arrives at the castle looking for Aurora during the Awakening scene, you have no doubt his will be the true love’s kiss.

The wedding celebration of the third act is another theatrical triumph of this staging. A fairytale hit parade, it brings onstage a multitude of colorful personages—the usual (The White Cat and Puss-in-Boots; Princess Florine and Bluebird; Cinderella and Prince Fortune among the others) and the unusual (Ogre and Ogress, Hop-o’-my-Thumb and His Brothers, Shah and his brothers, Porcelain Princesses and Mandarin)—with their own little stories as a gift to the newlyweds.

With this “Beauty,” in his effort to honor Petipa, Ratmansky also pays tribute to Tchaikovsky. In his sensitive reconstruction each musical phrase is filled with movement, and the steps underpin the music in a natural and harmonious fashion, allowing the audience experience and enjoy Tchaikovsky anew.

Watching this production, you realize as never before just how much ballet has evolved over the past century; what was gained and what sacrificed in the process. The choreographic idiom looks and feels entirely different: Here the movements have no sharp edges and appear softer, warmer, and lighter. The turns, executed on demi-point, acquire special fluidity and momentum; and the arabesques seem more pliant and demure, never going past 10 o’clock.

Ratmansky doesn’t straightjacket his dancers with this “ancient” stylistic approach. On the contrary, their movements look uninhibited and relaxed; and, because of that, ravishing. “Everyone seems to have gained five pounds,” wrote Joan Acocella in the New Yorker, describing the dancers. She meant it as a compliment.

The performance on June 8 was splendidly led by Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes. Vishneva felt securely at home in the part of Aurora. The famed prima of Mariinsky Ballet knows this role inside out, having danced it countless time on the stage of the Mariinsky Theater and all over the world. Yet in Ratmansky’s production it was Vishneva like I’ve never seen her before. There was a certain volume and lushness in her movements. Her lines were no longer powerful strings pointing skyward, but rather delicate curves at once caressing and playful. Hers was a youthful, almost child-like Aurora—adorable, gentle and loving. She was courteous and gracious, dancing with her would-be-suitors in the famous Rose Adagio, politely acknowledging each of them with a gentle bow of her head and a charming smile. (It’s still the most technically taxing part of the role, with a multitude of unsupported arabesques, tricky turns and poses; but now it no longer seems like a mere display of virtuosity.) Vishneva’s Aurora was enchantment personified in the Vision Scene as she ensured her awakening by capturing the imagination and the heart of the Prince.

Always a generous dancer and perceptive partner, Gomes shone in the role of Prince Désiré. He projected a special kindness and goodness of heart as well as his hero’s endless affection for Aurora. In his solo during the wedding pas de deux, his intricate footwork was elegant, swift, and meticulously etched; in duets, his partnering skills were impeccable.

Aglow with order-restoring serenity, Veronica Part was mesmerizing as Lilac Fairy, dancing and acting at her most eloquent. From the colorful flock of assorted fairies, Stella Abrera (Violente) and Isabella Boylston (Diamond) made a particular impression. Nancy Raffa was a deliciously vicious Carabosse, playing her role with a fabulous flair of burning outrage; Victor Barbee and Tatiana Ratmansky rendered the King Florestan and the Queen with aplomb and stately poise while also unearthing the gentle and sensitive side of the royal couple; and Alexei Agoudine brought an air of humility to the role of the ever-forgetful Catalabutte, the King’s Chief Minister, whose unfortunate mistake set the whole story in motion.

From start to finish the stage was awash in vibrant colors. Richard Hudson created the ballet’s scenery and costumes taking cues from the 1921 designs by Léon Bakst, which the Russian artist made for Serge Diaghilev’s production of “Sleeping Princess.” Yet for all its luxury and opulence, this production lacked a unified sense of fashion style, with some of the costumes looking plainly bizarre. In short, magic is still needed to awaken the fashion senses of this “Beauty” before it heads to Milan.


1This is not the first attempt to use Stepanov’s notations to resurrect Petipa’s classic. In 1999, Russian dancer-turned-choreographer, Sergei Vikharev, mounted his own reconstruction of “The Sleeping Beauty” for the Mariinksy Ballet. His production was deemed too controversial and quickly disappeared from the company’s repertory.

Oksana Khadarina


Oksana Khadarina is a Washington, DC–based dance writer. She has been covering dance at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as well as in New York City and internationally, since 2006. She has written for Dance Magazine, Pointe and DanceTabs, among other publications.

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