NB: this is the review of my first viewing. My second viewing brought out more points, and was a better evening.
Beautiful in decor, in costume and in lighting; in choreography gloriously fresh, in intent noble: Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty is a treasure entire, fit to be a jewel in any ballet company’s crown. Shown at American Ballet Theater this Summer, and garnering distinct acclaim and consistenly praising reviews there it was deemed a success. Critics lauded all, and loved it. My expectations were therefore high.
Less successful, and disappointing then, was this evening, mainly due to some uncertainties from the principals. Prince Desire (Timofej Andrijashenko) was exellent in his solo pieces, showing definition in tours and good height in jumps. His partnering of Nicoletta Mani as Beauty was a little hesitant, and of chemistry there was little.The second fish dive (never my favourite move) was marred by a moment of panic when Andrijashenko nearly lost his hold of Manni in the transition from spin to dive. The sound of flesh clapping hard on flesh isn’t the prettiest, but they recovered and held the hold. The third dive was taken more sheepishly – slower, a little more mechanical and separated into its elements.
Safety first then, and safety isn’t quite what that move should be about, but there it is. I wonder how much partnering time they had to learn the choreography? elsewhere, Ratmanksy reveals he has had 5 week to coach the ballet, compared with months for ABT. Their Grand Pas was better but not scintillating.
Scintillating though were the costumes. A fairytale par excellence, Beauty is a ballet which lends itself to opulence. I was used to the same from Paris Opera Ballet’s production, from the old Kirov videos, but here the costuming (Richard Hudson) seemed better than anything I have seen, in fact perhaps the best costuming I have ever seen. I was amenable because opulence plays to my predilections – we all like sequins and sparkle! Here, there as more than just sparkle without purpose. The designs, based on Bakst’s ideas for the Ballet Ruses in 1921 had a signature all of their own running through the pieces. The signature, I attribute more to Robert Hudson than to Bakst. I think Bakst’s designs will never truly see the light of day.Lighting (James F. Ingalls) too was marvellous: clear and unobtrusive. The transition from dormant to waking kingdom was legitimately magical.
Nevertheless, no tutus here: soft skirts around knee height lent softer lines to arabesques, turns and jumps from the ladies. I noted in particular that Lilac Fairy’s costume in the second acts and beyond was truly exquisite. Many times in the night I got emotional just looking at the lavish outfits, and that never happens.
Lilac Fairy herself was Martina Arduino, replacing Virna Toppi. What a wonderful job she did. Munificence radiated from her: her sincere smile lit up her scenes, mime as clear as speech lent them depth and dancing to match set the whole as a picture of delight. A pleasure to see. Of great note too was Diamond gemstone (Maria Celeste Losa) who showed wonderful coordination and verve. A sense of spontaneous rightness, and natural precision shone through in all she did.The effect was a becoming softness of attack and with it sharp clarity in phrasing: wonderful – genuinely exquisite. I was amazed to learn that Ms Toppi is a supplementary member of the corps. Mr Ratmansky has chosen well to highlight her skills.
Bluebird (Claudio Covelli) was fleet of foot, and light on them, but in this role I prefer a smaller dancer. That said, his arms were excellently employed, and his various entrechats and leaps well given. His princess (Lusymay Di Stefano) had a bit of a severe look on her face (which may have been merely concentration?) quite the opposite to enchantment but acquitted herself well. Mick Zeni as Carabosse was winningly villainous.
And now Aurora herself. I was underwhelmed by Ms Manni. She has a fine smile and secure technique, but of acting there was little that worked for me. I would have liked a more finely drawn sense of the story from her. What was at stake for her? Where was her hope and innocence? As an aside she was unfortunately not well served by her Arabian prince who accidentally made her lose her balance at the start of the famous Rose Adagio, but she overcame that to give a solid rendition in terms of technique. I would like to note that in general, her balance was excellent, and her pointe-work wonderfully stable. No wobble there.
Her act III variation was likewise well given but without much individuality that called out to one, nor a sense of the gradual unfurling in the diagonal passage.* Here hands, wrists, arms become an expression of wholesale ebullience of soul, of joy, but I did not feel that any of those emotions were truly felt, or even, if not felt, then displayed. Not the worst job ever, and for many less critical than I, I am sure they were well satisfied.
The choreography deserves mention all for itself. Doug Fullington, Alexei Ratmansky and his wife Tatiana have devoted a few years to returning to the notebooks Nicholas Grigorovich Sergeyev‘s notebooks of Stepanov notation, in which were recorded steps, tempi and floor diagrams perhaps for use as either aide memoire or texts/libretti. The books were in use between about 1895 and 1915. The presentation ABT audiences and I watched were Ratmansky’s hard work given life. Authentic? Who can say, without a time machine. Certainly costuming lent a sense of the old, vanished “world of yesterday” and the steps were the armature upon which this whole enterprise had been founded. This was then an evening of dance, dance which felt there for movement’s sake, not for display of athletic extensions, extreme posings, grand lines and gesture. This truly felt as if one had abandoned one hundred years of evolution in ballet, to return to something like – if not the source- then a tributary of ballet close to its origins.
Evolution tends to exaggerate extremes when populations are isolated, and ballet is the arch form of an isolated, parochial tradition: today’s exertions only look artistic to us because they have become the norm. I am therefore all in favour of Ratmansky’s approach. Steps look demure, and not just steps: Lilac Fairy is not lifted triumphantly in the Prologue: both at the end of the ballet and there, she is given a stool to stand upon!
With tempi given in the Stepanov notation, much of the dancing is faster than we have become accustomed to. There is a constant feel of allegro and, to use the word again, an ebullience in movement. Many steps are taken only demi-pointe, which seems to alter placement of bodies and to accent speed and passing steps. The result is that the pointe becomes the acmé of this dance grammar – its celebrant, as was intended. To see a dancer relevé en pointe feels vividly special once more. In the grand pas, one holds one’s breath as Tchaikovsky’s wonderful theme begins: the pizzicati of strings blossom and begin, and, light as the threads of a dream, Aurora rises on pointe to dance with her Prince. Truly lovely.
The evening’s movements feel firmly orderly, celebrating of Petipa’s language. There is a sense of rightness and classicism. This is most definitely 19th Century dance: non-Euclidean, symmetrical: the politesse of ballet is restored.
The orchestra of La Scala must have been having an off-night though. A few wayward horns squawked, a few minor flubs from piccolo in the Bluebird theme, the opening theme of the whole work felt underpowered, and the dance presentation at the end given without a sense of joy or majesty. A shame. Audience reaction was muted throughout, the sussuration of whispering constant, and the taking of photos continual. Most disappointing. And yet the joy of the ballet remained. My second viewing the next night was to prove more enjoyable.
* Alastair Macaulay notes that it is one of his favourite moments in ballet.