San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
January 23, 2017
by Rita Felciano
copyright © 2017
Is “Sleeping Beauty” the greatest classical ballet? It’s a question that periodically arises in my mind. After again seeing Helgi Tomasson’s 1990 version, I finally decided: “Sleeping Beauty” is the finest expression of classicism that we have, and SFB’s current production is about as good as they come. Lora de Avila and Larisa Lezhnina coached the company.
Sasha De Sola and Carlo Di Lanno in Tomasson's "The Sleeping Beauty"
Photo: Erik Tomasson
So why was this opening night such an extraordinary experience? Because its flow, its structural integrity, its sense of pacing, its musicality were so transparent. Tchaikovsky, under the baton of Martin West, has never sounded more alive. SFB here offered a unified statement arising from a common language; rigid in many ways but ever so eloquent and excellently interpreted by these dancers. Everyone counted: the hapless Master of Ceremonies (stalwart Val Caniparoli), the student court couples and the pages bringing the gifts, even Madison Keeler’s tiny role as the Countess.
As this “Sleeping Beauty” stands now, the Prologue retains its dark set, a sense of an old imperial Russia with a byzantine background and heavy tapestry costumes. The ceremonial dancing, including the Sliding Dance borrowed from folk traditions, felt a little heavy. So when Lilac (Sarah Van Patten) and her extended retinue spread across the stage, you entered a different world – a fairy tale. It made for an appealing contrast.
Van Patten’s variation -- grand developpés, soft arms and delightful sous sous -- expanded on Tchaikovsky’s music as if she called it up. The Fairy Variations (Wanting Zao, Koto Ishihara, Isabella Devivo, Jahna Frantziskonis and Wona Park) always struck me as an intriguing exploration of port de bras. The current cast did not disappoint.
Tomasson renamed Lilac’s antagonist (Anita Paciotti bigger and fiercer than ever) the Fairy of Darkness, perhaps in deference to audience members who might not be familiar with the ballet’s mime. He also reduced her attendants to three and, sadly, eliminated her going-away cart.
Newly appointed Principal Sasha de Sola premiered as Aurora. Fleet on her feet and exuberant in demeanor, she showed strong extensions, quick turns and a lovely sense of excitement and playfulness in the first Act. Her balances were nicely timed though they didn’t demand undue attention. In the Vision scene she shone, weaving in an out of the exquisitely dancing – such softness -- eighteen nymphs. Looking half awake, again and again she tried to make herself tangible to Prince Desire (Carlo Di Llano) by filling the space around herself with languid arabesques and huge developers. Van Patten’s here showed just a touch of bemusement in cueing Désiré towards an action plan.
The current production includes the Royal Danish Ballet “Sleeping Beauty” set and costumes (all by Jens-Jacob Worsaae) for Act III. The change diminishes the stark contrast between old Russia and the French environment a hundred years later. The rich flower patterns in the women's off-white gowns are exquisite except these garments seemed more at home a pastoral environment than to a royal wedding. But perhaps, now the Polonaise skipped with a lighter touch.
Divertissements were offered by, among others, Zhao and Sean Orza who justifiably brought down the house with their spiffy The White Cat and Puss in Boots. Dores André and Wei Wang had overcome their Gala nerves. In The Enchanted Princess and Bluebird, they were on the both in their variations and as a “flying” couple. As a sextet, the condensed Jewels moved swiftly and great spirit. But here Esteban Hernandez and Lonnie Weeks’ Cavaliers triumphed with their airy mirroring of each other.
If there was any doubt about De Sola as a important dancer, in the Wedding Pas de Deux she showed herself in superb control of this major role. This was dancing on a grand scale. Fingers traced the air, toes caressed the floor, legs created huge arcs when not fluttering in bourrées. All of it delivered with the greatest of ease and extraordinary confidence. A secure, though cool partner, Di Lanno showed beautiful strong technique in his variation. Yet I kept wondering about his comfort level in the classical repertoire.