“The Sleeping Beauty”
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
July 6, 2011
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2011 by Kathleen O’Connell
Alina Cojocaru could probably win your heart dancing Aurora in ratty practice clothes on a bare stage, but even she and Johan Kobborg—last minute substitutes for Natalia Osipova and an injured David Hallberg—can’t rescue ABT’s troubled production of “The Sleeping Beauty” from its various excesses and deficiencies. At least their lovingly danced and theatrically rich portrayals of Aurora and Prince Désiré on Wednesday evening did provide a balm for the show’s self-inflicted wounds.
A veteran Aurora, Cojocaru rounded out her portrayal with charming detail. She let her roses fall at her mother’s feet in a gentle cascade rather than flinging them there in a heap. She smiled at each of her suitors in turn as she worked her way down the line—sometimes with a slight, shy pause before opening into a developpé, sometimes when finishing a turn—but never in exactly the same way, as if she really were engaged in conversation with each one. But most remarkable was the way her details seemed to flow out of the choreography itself—as the logical conclusion of a phrase, perhaps, or a telling marker of a moment of transition—rather than being plopped on top of the steps like a dollop of acting.
Due deference to the well–proportioned phrase was a hallmark of Cojacaru’s dancing, and although she made ample use of rubato effects she never pushed to the point of distortion. Even her descent off pointe was musical, and sometimes as captivating as the balance that preceded it. Not all went smoothly—her turns seemed to be giving her some trouble—and her blocky shoes take some getting used to, but her overall performance was so lovely and true it hardly mattered.
Kobborg doesn’t really look like a capital–P Prince. He’s got a relatively large head suggestive of youth, like Cojocaru’s, and the face of an open-hearted country boy. But he inhabits the stage so naturally and with so little fuss that you believe in his authority without hesitation. It’s a shame, then, that the production team either stripped away or mishandled the traditional Act II material that would have allowed him to establish Désiré’s dissatisfaction with his life of aristocratic ease and his melancholy longing for the ideal. They threw in a lot of jumps and turns instead, including an extended curtain–raising ensemble for the Prince and his hunting companions that suggests the exact opposite: this Désiré looks brimful of joie de vivre—especially when his leaps are executed with the clarity and powerful, coiled–spring release that Kobborg brought to them.
The production does grant Désiré a neon vision of Aurora’s castle while he’s blindfolded during the game of blind man’s bluff, presumably to let us know that he’s more plugged into matters of the spirit than all that callow jumping might suggest. Kobborg made as much of this opportunity as his evident good taste would allow—he conveyed the vision’s impact without resorting to histrionics—but the interpolation seems misguided from the get-go. It drains away the revelatory power of Désiré’s vision of Aurora herself, and—befitting real estate–obsessed New York—suggests that he’s as captivated by the castle as he is by the Princess who will inherit it.
Kobborg was at his best in his duets with Cojocaru, fully alive to the expressive possibilities of dancing with a partner. The pair are a couple in real life, but that’s never been a guarantee of the kind of artistic sympathy they displayed in both the Act 2 Vision Scene and the Act 3 Wedding Pas de Deux. (The supported pirouettes in the latter sometimes veered off center, but the two never seemed in real trouble.) The most affecting passage came in Act 3’s folk–inflected coda. The preceding adagio and variations had been danced as if for the benefit of the guests—a public demonstration of the harmony and commitment that will set the world to rights. In a lovely touch, Cojocaru’s Aurora even seemed to acknowledge some of the members of her court with a personal smile while she danced, much as she had done with her suitors. The coda, however, was suffused with a surge of shared joy that read like the overflowing of private bliss, and it brought the duet to a close that was as touching as it was triumphant.
Alas, ABT’s production suffers from a weird mix of extravagance and penury. The elaborate sets and costumes are garish in a way that only something ostentatiously expensive can be: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap” as Dolly Parton once quipped. And while the kitsch fairytale turrets have their charms, the production looks cheap in a different and far more dispiriting way: Florestan’s storyland McMansion seems sadly underpopulated. The fairies outnumber the courtiers two-to-one and only sixteen villagers and a lonely pair of children can be scraped together for the Garland Dance. Despite the surfeit of fairy bustle, the kingdom looks half-empty and drained of life long before Carabosse shows up with her spindle. Precious theatrical time is lavished on matters that could be handled with economy—who cares about the village gossips and their contraband spindle, for heaven’s sake—while the charming wedding divertissements have been pared back to the ballet equivalent of walk-ons.
ABT’s dancers did what they could to dig their way out of a production that seems determined to bury them in folderol. Stella Abrera doesn’t have the easy grandeur of a natural Lilac Fairy, but she used her beautiful arabesque and the refined geometry of her lines to establish a lovely, grave authority. Isabella Boylston’s Florine was having none of mere loveliness: she shot through her variation like a heroine ready to take charge of her own story. It wasn’t always princess–pretty, but, lead couple aside, it was some of the most exciting dancing of the evening, and she looked like a real ballerina. Sascha Radetsky danced Bluebird with particularly soft, supple arms—an interesting effect atop the role’s sharp footwork, which he dispatched with ease. As the Fairy of Fervor (Vivacity in some versions), Kristi Boone brought her variation to a close with thrilling, fiercely centered pirouette that was practically worth the price of admission. Simone Messmer danced the Fairy of Valor’s “Finger Variation” with a delightfully bracing attack, real expansiveness, and a minimum of over-emphatic finger-stabbing. She, like Boylston, took charge of the stage—and both look ready for fresh challenges. Let’s hope it’s in a production that doesn’t fight them at every turn.
copyright © 2011 by Kathleen O’Connell