This may be thought of as the authentic Sleeping Beauty, but it teaches the audience that fussy costumes and wigs and long-winded storytelling are the apex of ballet.
Boston Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, at the Boston Opera House, Boston, MA, through May 27.
By Marcia B. Siegel
It’s not a complicated story. Basically, an infant princess is cursed by a bad fairy, then rescued by a good one. On her 16th birthday, Princess Aurora falls into an enchanted sleep, to be awakened a hundred years later by a kiss from a handsome prince. Out of this the Russian Imperial ballet master Marius Petipa and the great composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky built a big ballet encompassing romance, drama, entertainment, and dances of many kinds. The ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, got a mixed reception after its premiere in St. Petersburg in 1890 and it’s had a long varied life ever since. Fabled later productions include Serge Diaghilev’s financially disastrous 1921 revival and the English version from 1939/46 that cemented the reputation of what became the Royal Ballet.
Curiously, it’s this (so-called de Valois) version that Boston Ballet is resuscitating, based on choreography by Petipa with interpolations by Frederick Ashton and Ninette de Valois. Story ballets of this magnitude—three acts plus an act-long Prologue, elaborate costumes and sets, full-scale orchestra—are rare today. When big ballet companies approach these relics, they often scale down the designs and convert the mime to sketchy indications. With only a few strategic deletions, Boston’s Beauty looks cluttered to me, both scenically and dramaturgically.
Ballet history geeks can get a lot of period information from this production. The four scenes (designed ever so long ago by David Walker) look dated, but I guess that’s the point. To me on Saturday afternoon it was a very long, busy ritual redeemed by the company’s fine dancing and the wonderful score, conducted with care and flexibility by emeritus musical director Jonathan McPhee. No one is credited with the staging.
In addition to comic characters, specialty acts and processions of nobles in cumbersome costumes and wigs, Sleeping Beauty boasts big classical scenes in each of its acts, all different. This is where you get to see the ensemble refinement and solo virtuosity that mark the pinnacle of what a classical ballet company can do.
In the Prologue, the “Christening” scene, each of six benevolent fairies dances a symbolic gift to the infant princess. Here Petipa and Tchaikovsky created the steps and music to describe the womanly attributes each one bestows: beauty, temperament, talent in dancing, and singing. Boston’s program preserves the fanciful but unhelpful names used in the Covent Garden production of 1946. Golden Vine, for instance, the fifth fairy, is presenting a beautiful voice to the baby Aurora. The historicizing program designation, like so much of this production, does nothing to educate the audience about how to read the human qualities we see the Golden Vine dancing about.
In the first act, the “Spell,” Aurora celebrates her 16th birthday with a long, demanding solo in which she’s partnered by four potential suitors from different countries. This is the famous Rose Adagio. Not only does Aurora lean serenely on each of them in turn, balancing on toe, turning, receiving the rose each one offers to her, she dances alone in a sparkling display of footwork
After she pricks her finger on the magic spindle concocted by Carabosse, she and the court are put to sleep by the benevolent Lilac Fairy. A hundred years later in act two, the “Vision,” we see the Prince and his comrades in a hunting party. He’s dejected and vaguely longing for something, certainly not the ladies of his entourage. When they all leave at the sound of the hunting horn, the Lilac Fairy summons Aurora as if in a dream. Smitten, the prince pursues this alluring but elusive creature. They dance together briefly, but a corps of 16 other women shields her and prevents him from capturing her. The Lilac Fairy has picked him to release Aurora from the spell, and she leads him through the forest to the vine-covered castle where the sleeping Princess is ensconced. At her urging he wakes Aurora with a kiss.
The ballet concludes with a big wedding scene, where, after many entertainments, the couple dance a grand pas de deux, the ultimate classical display of partnering and soloistic feats. Like the fairy variations, the Rose Adagio, and the Vision scene, the wedding pas de deux isn’t just steps. It expresses the union of noble minds and talents.
On Saturday afternoon the Aurora was Ashley Ellis, who joined the company in 2011 and was promoted to principal dancer in 2013. Ellis has the requisite strong footwork and balances, and besides, she seems to breathe the music. She can modulate the speed of her movements, unfolding a leg slowly and luxuriously instead of jutting it out into its final position. She lets her arms float up to accompany her legs, or keeps her arms lifting after the legs finish. She doesn’t affect the frozen smile you see on other dancers.
On Saturday her prince was Eris Nezha, who suits her technical strength and delicate looks but who seemed emotionally inert even when he was united with his true love. I noticed this especially in the hunting scene, when his opposite number was the countess, Sarah Wroth. This stalwart dancer, here taking a mostly mime role, conveyed a real person, her face and especially her eyes reflecting the feelings of a self-possessed woman whose hopes of a conquest are thwarted.
We don’t often get a chance to see classical ballet in all its guises within one production. The “De Valois” Beauty was based on notations made around the time of the original by Nicholas Sergeyev, now housed at Harvard’s Houghton Library. They provide a blueprint, but no one has recorded exactly how different régisseurs translated Sergeyev’s score when they taught it to generations of dancers over the past 80 years. This may be thought of as the authentic Sleeping Beauty, but it teaches the audience that fussy costumes and wigs and long-winded storytelling are the apex of ballet. Unfortunately, Boston’s program gives virtually nothing to educate the audience about the meaning and legacy of what it’s looking at. Especially in the era of the short attention span, the audience can get tired of all this dancing. One bunch of leaps is like another. On Saturday, after the second intermission, there were a lot of empty seats.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.