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Know Your Audience

After an absence of six years, the New York City Ballet revived Peter Martins’s “The Sleeping Beauty” to close out the Winter Season. A lot has changed at the ballet in that interim, including the departure of Martins himself. But I hadn’t seen this “Beauty” from the front in over 20 years (though I danced 11 different roles in the production in that span)—so for me, it was like seeing a premiere. I’d had it in my mind that Martins’s “Sleeping Beauty” was by far the best of his classical full-lengths (the others being “Romeo and Juliet” and “Swan Lake”), but I was wrong: it is as uneven as the rest of them. It has some truly beautiful moments, a lot of great dancing, and several glaring issues.  

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Sleeping Beauty”

Place

David H Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, February 15, 21, and 25, 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

Unity Phelan as Princess Aurora and Andrew Veyette as Prince Désiré in "The Sleeping Beauty," choreography by Peter Martins. Photograph by Erin Baiano

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A central problem was due to its age, though that is a funny scapegoat in a ballet which dates from 1890 and closes with a wedding that features a bride roughly a century older than her groom. (Those elements, ironically, have aged just fine). The issue here was that the production relies heavily on scrim projections during the overture and numerous scene-change interludes, and the technology is clearly from 1991, when the ballet premiered. The castle images, by David Mitchell, looked grainy, and they were never that imaginative to begin with—the overly simple, generic palace looks like it was modeled on a plastic Playmobil toy. If City Ballet keeps this production in rotation, it would be a good idea to do a slide upgrade or overhaul. The jagged Per Kirkeby painting that hangs for Martins’s “Swan Lake” overture has more movement than the entire shifting series of “Beauty” projections. But nothing beats a stunning backdrop for longevity. The beautiful angel hovering over a wintry town that hangs during Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” overture (by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, 1954) is a highlight of the whole show, as are the dazzling Chagall drops for Balanchine’s “Firebird” (1949). I learned recently (in Jennifer Homans’s Balanchine bible, Mr. B) that Balanchine himself took scissors to “Firebird’s” second-hand, bug-infested Chagall drops in the 50s. You wouldn’t know it today: I was just marveling at them at Jared Angle’s farewell performance this season. They made a fittingly noble tableau for Angle’s final bow, after 25 gallant years with the troupe. The musty Chagalls, still going strong at 74 years, will outlive every dancer’s onstage career.

Compared to other “Beauties,” Martins’s iteration is faster and shorter. (For context: Alexei Ratmansky’s version for American Ballet Theatre—which is a historical recreation of the original Petipa production—runs 178 minutes in total, while Martins’s runs 127.) Streamlining “Beauty” is not a bad idea, per se, and it is in keeping with the Balanchine ethos. But simply chopping minutes from a work doesn’t necessarily make it feel lighter. Pacing is key, and this is where Martins’s “Beauty” falters most. In general, the dancing is too rushed and the mime scenes are too empty. But the biggest problem is structural: Martins has condensed the first two acts into one, and that one abridged act feels interminable. Even with the almost comically quick tempi in its final Vision Scene—they feel apologetic—it is a long time to sit. Woe unto anyone who doesn’t use the restroom before this “Beauty,” they won’t get another chance until the lone intermission, roughly an hour and a quarter later.

Cutting up this act would give the audience a much-needed break. It is hard to focus on the dancing by the end of the Vision, which is darkly lit and, like Aurora herself by that point, a little sleepy. Most of Balanchine’s narrative first acts run well shy of an hour. His “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the exception, at 68 minutes, but it gradually builds to a climax with a wild chase through a Walpurgisnacht fog—so it doesn’t feel draggy. In contrast, Martins’s “Beauty” winds down with the somnolent Vision scene and ends with a boring mime sequence between Prince Désiré and ballet’s classiest pimp, the Lilac Fairy. In the scene, the Lilac persuades the Prince, who has essentially just danced with Aurora’s hologram, to rescue Aurora in the flesh. They hop on a beautiful, slow-moving gondola, on which they stand perfectly still and gesture aimlessly. The audience is lulled into intermission, left with the idea of this un-dynamic duo embarking on a three-hour tour.

The crowd who came out for the run of “Sleeping Beauty,” like the crowd that shows up for “Swan Lake,” “R&J,” “Midsummer,” and “The Nutcracker,” was dressier and younger than the audience for the mixed repertory shows. There were several children in attendance. These spectators seemed to want to linger over their champagne at the intermission and take copious pictures on the promenade. The ushers were having a hard time getting everyone back into the auditorium to sit down for Act II. Another intermission would help this crowd drink more bubbly and relieve themselves of it, and it would be a godsend to the sea of fidgety children I saw during the Vision at each performance. Though the show would technically be longer, it would likely feel shorter. Adding one more 20-minute pause would still bring the whole thing in half an hour shorter than ABT’s “Beauty.”

Unity Phelan as Princess Aurora and Andrew Veyette as Prince Désiré in "The Sleeping Beauty" by Peter Martins. Photograph by Erin Baiano

This would be a simple fix with huge benefits. But there are other unforced errors that would be even easier to remedy, the most urgent of which has to do with the Prince’s cape and sword. He enters for the Hunt scene with these accoutrements, but once the hunting party disperses, his first act alone on the stage is to slowly remove them and tuck them awkwardly into the second wing, just offstage. It’s the worst moment in the show. Why on Earth, when you are trying to quickly establish the motives of a late-entering central character, would you call attention to unimportant props and break the fourth wall? Have an attendant in the Hunt take them away, give the Prince a few yearning steps to do instead. He needs them. (The Prince in every “Beauty” ballet feels shortchanged, he’s the least involved of any full-length prince.) It is also terrible when the Prince retrieves this stuff from its second-wing hiding spot later, in that leaden mime with the Lilac right before the intermission. She summons him aboard her boat and instead of enthusiastically following her to save his new love, he runs over and crouches partially offstage to gather his bulky things. Again, this wrecks the sanctity of the narrative, and it makes for a horrible last impression before the curtain falls. The Prince could just appear with this gear in the second half. No one would notice that he didn’t board the boat with it. Better yet, cut it altogether: the Prince’s goofy whacking at brambles that don’t even remotely respond to his movements are another bad look. Make the Lilac simply lift them away with her wand. But capes were distracting throughout: Aurora’s Rose Adagio suitors entered and walked gingerly down a staircase with their unwieldy, flashy capes only to immediately ditch them in a messy pile on some servants. Why bother? Cut these too. As it was, this suitor quartet, with their glittery, vaguely ethnic costumes (they have been slightly altered to make them less politically incorrect) and neon wraps, seemed like a missed opportunity for a cross-promotional tie-in with the latest Magic Mike film.

These things are frustrating because they detract from the dancing, which should be the focus of the show. Of all the story ballets, “Beauty” should translate best to City Ballet’s style; for it is the least focused on “story” of all of them. The main characters do not enact a dramatic love story, their union is foreordained. They are happily wed the moment they meet. The battle between Carabosse and the Lilac is similarly pat. One is evil, the other is good, and their clash is basically a negotiation of the limits of their powers. Aurora is not an emotional participant in the Vision scene, she’s a mirage. The Wedding scene consists of divertissements that don’t further the plot. Every character is a stock figure, not one has an arc. (The Walt Disney company proved their dramaturg skills in the more dramatically compelling 1959 animated film by giving the lead couple a romcom meet-cute and having the Prince bravely slay a dragon to earn Aurora’s hand.) The crux of “Beauty” is dancing, not acting. If anything, Martins’s production doesn’t go far enough in its elisions: get rid of the fussy capes and the milling about of the courts and let the dancing breathe.

Too much time is given to Catalabutte and his lackey, who don’t have much to do, at the top of the Christening scene; too little time is given to the fairy soloists. They have to practically sprint around the stage to bow to the King and Queen or bless the baby, with their little pages scurrying like terriers at their heels. On opening night, conductor Andrew Litton took the fairy variations so quickly that he often slowed down drastically at the ends of the solos so the dancers could finish on time—a very Old-World, un-Balanchine approach. Alexa Maxwell was the best fairy I saw in any cast; she was on top of the music and not chasing after it. She was also the best of the Jewels in Act II. She had a stellar Winter Season. Mira Nadon, who debuted as the Lilac Fairy, was suitably commanding, though she seemed unable to fully tap into her lush gifts in the speedy solos. Miriam Miller’s Lilac interpretation has grown in authority and graciousness since her debut six years ago, and she benefited from the roomier pacing of conductor Clotilde Otranto. But neither one looked comfortable with all the silly, semaphore-like arm positions during the turns in their solos. Martins only added these during the last “Beauty” run; they should go if there’s a next one. Ditto the overcomplicated alterations to the fairy variations.

Maria Kowroski, left, as the Fairy Carabosse, and Mira Nadon as the Lilac Fairy in "The Sleeping Beauty" by Peter Martins. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Former principal dancer Maria Kowroski was back to perform Carabosse, a signature role. She was less haughty this time around and more cackling—a fun changeup. Martins’s devilishly glamorous Carabosse is the one juicy acting role in the production, it is a fabulous creation. Though she is a static character in terms of emotional development, and she disappears for good with an unceremonious poof at the start of Act II, it is a role with a lot of interpretive leeway. Senior corps member Marika Anderson retired from the company with the part this season, and it felt like a gift to catch her penultimate outing in it. She was one of the few great stage actors the troupe had in recent years—bringing tremendous imagination and commitment to every character role she took on. She could steal any scene, as she did as the Queen on opening night, wringing her hands as a hysterical mother à la Kristen Wiig on Saturday Night Live. She was veering out of her lane—I actually missed Nadon’s Lilac emerging from the fountain, Anderson’s hysteria over her daughter’s lifeless body in the corner pulled focus—but as Carabosse she could rightfully claim the spotlight and she did, playing up her Wednesday Adams beauty and wicked glee to the hilt.

Unity Phelan as Princess Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty" by Peter Martins. Photograph by Erin Baiano

I saw two and a quarter Auroras: the veteran Megan Fairchild, the debuting Unity Phelan, and I also caught the training-wheel Family Saturday matinee of soloist Emma Von Enck. Fairchild’s experience showed, she paced herself throughout the long, demanding role (it is one of the hardest in all of ballet). She was secure in the treacherous Rose Adagio and still had gas in the tank by the Wedding coda. Phelan, in contrast, went full-throttle out of the gate. Her opening pas de chat and stag leap sequence was thrilling. Every coupé jeté turn in the Spell was maximal. It was fantastic. When she ran out of steam by the end of her Wedding variation it wasn’t surprising, but it also didn’t matter. Her exquisite lines and lyrical softness in the Wedding pas were entrancing. With this role, she has arrived as a real ballerina. Emma Von Enck, in her few polished excerpts, seemed en route to being a formidable future Aurora.

Megan Fairchild and Joseph Gordon as Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré in "The Sleeping Beauty" by Peter Martins. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Fairchild and Phelan, interestingly, courted different audiences. Fairchild performed more for the literal audience, while Phelan played more to the other dancers on the stage. Fairchild’s gaze swept the fourth ring in her first entrance, and she acknowledged the house more than her suitors in the Rose Adagio. In the Vision scene she projected out and far away instead of towards her Prince, Joseph Gordon (it is perfectly valid to choose not to see him here). In contrast, Phelan greeted her onstage friends in her entrance step, she seemed to seriously consider each suitor, and she ran imploringly towards Andrew Veyette, her Prince, in the Vision. Thus, Phelan and Veyette had a more romantic connection, while Fairchild and Gordon had more performative bravado. Gordon was dashing throughout, and his Wedding solo was particularly impressive. It rightfully got as much applause as the Rose Adagio. Emma Von Enck and Roman Mejia only danced briefly together in the Family matinee, but they executed the famous double en dedans pirouettes to the fish dives in the Wedding pas de deux better than anyone else I saw. I’d have liked to have seen them get a real show. But Emma Von Enck was a fantastic White Cat, opposite a game Alec Knight as Puss in Boots, in the Wedding party. And Mejia was a standout Court Jester, though the jester crop was particularly strong this year and included Cainan Weber, David Gabriel, Daniel Ulbricht, Andres Zuniga, KJ Takahashi, and Victor Abreu. One of Martins’s best inventions is the adorable dance for Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf, and Stella Thompson (a School of American Ballet student) and Davide Riccardo were charming in it.

Importantly, the finale of Martins’s “Sleeping Beauty” is magnificent. It is akin to his “Swan Lake” in this respect: there are so many head-scratching and fixable flaws along the way, but he sticks the tricky landings. The grand mazurka for the courtiers, the fairy tale characters, the divertissements, Aurora and the Prince is joyful and exciting. And the final coronation ceremony is solemnly poignant. As Tchaikovsky’s score switches to a minor key, the stage is bathed in a warm light as a gorgeous sunburst backdrop (again by Mitchell) descends. The characters all freeze in genuflection as the curtain lowers on this Apollonian scene. In this deft shift, it feels like the cast is being preserved in amber in another time—a once upon a time—and the sun is setting on old-fashioned story ballets themselves.

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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