Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sprinkles of Fairy Dust

ABT's Sumptuous Sleeping Beauty

By Donna Perlmutter

Cause for cheer: American Ballet Theatre’s 2007 production of “The Sleeping Beauty.” Why? Because the show is jam-packed with the exquisite glitter of a Fabergé egg – enough gorgeous dancing, deeply coached 19th-century mime characterizations and fairy tale glories to satisfy even the most curmudgeonly among us.

Now that it’s touring, with a weekend stopover at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, we can see definite traces of Gelsey Kirkland’s fine directorial hand at work. She, along with Kevin McKenzie and her huband Michael Chernov, staged this quintessential classical ballet and, miracle of miracles, we can now gaze upon courtly characters who comport themselves as convincingly regal and at the same time are passionate in their causes (not, as was the case in Ballet Theatre’s recently seen “Swan Lake,” where the heavy costumes wore the sleep-walking dancers).

So we have Victor Barbee to thank for his commanding King Florestan and, as his queen, Maria Bystrova, who swept around the court with her upper back and outstretched arms held high, a constant marvel of eloquence. In fact, the whole cast moved to the manner born -- with a fluid musicality and articulate dramatic expression seldom seen in stagings of balletic warhorses these days.

What’s more, we could learn where George Balanchine picked up his tricks of the trade: at the feet of those masters Petipa and Tchaikovsky – their fluent linkage of dance and music were striking to behold here. With Charles Barker presiding over a faultless pit band and the stage action so fully in sync with the orchestra it was a night of sheer revelation. You didn’t want to take your eyes from the boards, and that’s no small bonus.

Tchaikovsky’s score, of course, is full of the tenderest melodies and most innocent, joyous sentiments. Petipa was his muse, or vice versa. And together they could make you weep in happiness – especially when their intentions are so wonderfully realized as here.

Which is not to say that the principal casting was perfect. Opening night saw Gillian Murphy as Aurora and although this stunningly skilled dancer can do anything (never mind those touchy open balances in the Rose Adagio), I prefer her in more womanly roles – Hagar in Pillar of Fire, for instance, or the high-tech neo-classical challenges). When she finally made her entrance as the beloved princess, a teenaged creature who had yet to ever see a cloud overhead, it was with undue solemnity, not as a carefree spirit exuding fragile preciousness.

As her Prince, the handsome Marcelo Gomes danced and partnered with suavity; he also gave off Hamlet-like thoughtfulness in his lonely moments and punctuated each musical ending with a deep-breathed accent. But Michele Wiles, as the all-important Lilac Fairy, lacked the warmth, amplitude and good nature of a key benefactor. The other five fairies, bestowing on their Princess the virtues due a Royal, danced with characterfulness and technical polish. So did those as the storybook characters shine effusively in their choice solos.

Finally, Nancy Raffa made the most of Carabosse, the vengeful spell-caster who tried to poison Aurora, but ended up only putting her and the kingdom to sleep for a hundred years. It was Kirkland who took the part at the 2007 premiere -- alerting all of New York to her much-bruited stage return, although in a non-balletic role; she re-vamped it entirely. Gone was the ugly, bent-over crone and in its place Raffa made an angrily defiant dominatrix -- upright, demanding, glamorous, sexual. (I can hear Petipa saying: “Gee, Carabosse, I hardly know ya’.")

Critical punches against Tony Walton’s sets and Willa Kim’s costumes abounded in New York, but I found the lacey Valentine card of the Wedding Act somehow sweet, even in its overdone, sugar-spun state – albeit with flashes of chic wit scattered around, in scrumptious sherbet shades.

After all, it is "The Sleeping Beauty," in a kingdom of sugar and spice.

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