pnb: sleeping beauty—a review

By Rosie Gaynor

All photos of PNB’s Sleeping Beauty; all by Angela Sterling. Below: Kaori
Nakamura as Aurora in pink.

CityArts review by Mary Murfin Bayley—added 2/11
CrossCut review by Jean Lenihan—added 2/11
Examiner review by Rosemary Jones
GatheringNote review by Richard Campbell
NYT article by Alastair Macaulay
Seattle Times review by Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times preview by Moira Macdonald
Seattlest review
The Sun Break review by Michael van Baker

Check out PNB’s news-room webpage in a bit, as they post links to their reviews there. If you haven’t ever visited, it’s fun to go there a month or two after a ballet and see the variety of opinion.

Links to PNB videos

PNB’s “Sleeping Beauty” opened last week. What a burst of spring! Bright, fresh, exuberantly colorful, and full of energy. Just the magic we need right now.
This Ronald Hynd staging is based on the Petipa 1890 “Sleeping Beauty.”* Thus, it includes an old-fashioned ratio of…
       dance that advances plot/shows emotion…to…
       promenades and divertissements.
That ratio works doesn’t work for every ballet, but it works in this one for me. I think the fast promenades add to the excitement and show off the lovely costumes; the divertissements (or, what my best friend calls “gratuitous dancing”) are fun or beautiful or both.

The orchestra’s overture was as exciting as Tchaikovsky ought to be, and magical in places. There were some awkward bleats

and blats after the curtain opened, but so much was happening onstage that they weren’t too distracting. I’ll take’em, though, and forget about them readily since we’re also getting the energy of that live orchestra.

Right from the Prologue, you can see how huge a role acting plays in this ballet. The corps’ contribution is crucial here, and they do a good job bringing the story alive. Of course there are standouts, as some folks have special little bits that (I assume) are choreographed. For example, one Herald (student Steven Loch) hands the list of christening invitees to the master of ceremonies: when the herald breaks out of his butler-like detachment for the briefest of moments and peeks at the list with other nosey folks, you get a sense of just how exciting this party is for the court.

The megawatt acting comes from Carabosse, the Wicked Fairy left off that list. On opening night, Olivier Wevers took on the role. What a fabulously scary, three-dimensional hag he made. It wasn’t just the costume and his stance. His every movement was specific and readable. At times it seemed as though he was using words, so clearly did his gestures convey his meaning. It doesn’t hurt that Carabosse’s music and occasional lightning flashes serve as an amplifier for her mood—indeed, Wevers timed it so that the music becomes her voice. When the music laughs, it is her cackle we hear. When the music screams, it is her screams we hear. A favorite moment for me was when Wevers imitated some of the not-so-wicked fairies. “And you, Fairy of Joy, all light and spright with your fluttery little movements, do you really think you can say anything of consequence? Bah!”  [Here’s a funny pix of Carabosse/Wevers on Jessica Anspach’s interesting blog entry.]

The fairy & attendants line-up from another evening, including Carrie Imler
as Lilac Fairy and William Lin-Yee (center)

The fairies—all seven of them—were storybook beautiful on opening night, dressed in short, bouncy tutus of orange, turquoise, blue, lilac, green, peach, and rose.

Chalnessa Eames, Fairy of Wit, was perfectly cast: sassy and dancing tongue-in-cheek.

Rachel Foster seemed miscast as the Fairy of Joy, the roles’ short movements coming across to me and my seatmate less as happy than as stressed out. I’ll add, though, that a friend of mine saw the same performance and identified Foster as her favorite fairy, remarking specifically on her joyfulness. Which just reminds us all to take a critic’s negative comment with several shakes of salt. I’m looking forward to seeing Foster shine in PNB’s March rep.

Kylie Kitchens, the Fairy of Beauty, had a sublime moment in her first traverse, creating that sought-after, elusive lightness to her arms, the kind where it seems as though the air billows beneath them.

Laura Gilbreath, Fairy of Purity, looked secure and beautifully lifted, smiling in that way she has, where her smile somehow creeps into her shoulders and long limbs.

Leslie Rausch, Fairy of Generosity, looked secure and precise. She often seems diamond-like to me, rather cool—a style that has its place—a style that seemed to me to have pride of place for years in the U.S. and at PNB. But on opening night I saw a different side of her. She’s dancing Aurora on Sunday, and I hope to see that same quality. Aurora has such a sweet, flighty entrance; I’d love to see Rausch carry this charm over into that entrance.

Carla Körbes’s Lilac Fairy was a little more Glinda the Good Witch than we’re used to seeing at PNB, a very motherly noblest of fairies. And when you think about the soothing qualities in her music, it makes good sense to interpret the role that way. She stands her ground against Carabosse, though, her firm gestures stating unequivocally her right to soften the blow of Carabosse’s curse. Körbes danced with the light and clarity we have enjoyed so much from her over the past few years here. She, too, dances Aurora in this rep (as do Carrie Imler and Mara Vinson and opening night’s Kaori Nakamura).

The fairies’ cavaliers have some fabulous jumping sequences and the PNB men’s corps is up to the challenge. It took them more than several measures to find the fabulous team-timing they usually bring immediately to this kind of work, but their individual prodigious efforts paid off in remarkable height and energy.

The women’s corps staging is more forgiving than last year’s Swan Lake, with fewer long lines that must be arrow-straight and more opportunities to be an individual persona rather than an exact replica of the swans on either side of you. Still, there was noticeable improvement. I noted less swooping standing in for grace and fewer heads angled oddly. That’s very encouraging, as I imagine it’s a hard switch to make, given everything else they have to think about. Keep going, ladies. Coalesce into a team. The serene “Serenade” is right around the corner. If ever your efforts to breathe as one will be rewarded, it is in “Serenade.”

Act I: Finally we see Aurora, one of the hardest roles in classical ballet.

What is not to love about an act that more or less starts with a spotlight on Kaori Nakamura, upstage center? The anticipation this talented dancer creates in that momentary pose! A dynamo momentarily stilled. What art will she unleash?

The audience is not the only one waiting: her four suitors are also longing for their first glimpse of her. Nakamura does not disappoint here. She floats downstage, as light as the pink clouds behind her, appearing sweet sixteen, easily throwing off the initial series of gorgeous, precise, coquettish jumps.

Nakamura’s Beauty may be young and fresh, but she is not to be caged. As she meets with each suitor, she takes his hand and draws her leg up in a generous extension to the side, and then releases her hand from his with an independent flick, balancing for a moment before moving on to the next suitor. Nakamura times things perfectly with the music, giving this passage added drama.

These initial balances with her four suitors are the precursor to two harder series of balances on pointe in attitude in her Rose Adagio.

Series #1 is strange in that Aurora only balances with arms in fifth (“like a crown,” says Balanchine in his “Stories”) for three suitors; the fourth suitor steps up, gives her his hand for support, and then steps back as she stretches arms and leg straight up for a quick balance before coming down again. I fault the choreography here, because it makes Aurora look like she has skipped a balance. Indeed, I fully thought Nakamura had, and I sat back in my seat dumbfounded because this powerhouse dancer rarely misses anything. Do other folks in the audience do this: I start worrying that a foot may be injured, I get angry that we don’t allow for a time-out so the dancer doesn’t do more damage by dancing on an injury, and I forget to enjoy the ballet until it seems as though the dancer is really not in pain (well, in any more pain than toe shoes cause just because they’re toe shoes). It wasn’t until I spent some time on YouTube that I realized other productions have this same odd fourth-suitor twist here, and I’d wasted my worry—not to mention ruined part of the ballet for myself—for nothin’.

In watching the YouTube videos, you see how some other Auroras compensate during both series, by adjusting the leg that is in attitude or by adjusting their torso. I don’t recall Nakamura needing any such movement at all.

What dancers really look comfortable with this balance? Not many on YouTube. My memory of past PNB productions comes up with the same nail-biting concentration on each face and nerve-wracking quality to each handhold. Frankly, I’d rather skip Series #1, and the second, harder one too. Do we really need such tricks and feats of strength? I’d much rather watch people dancing than sit there crossing my fingers, hoping they can pull off the stunt, listening to the orchestra trying to give the dancer enough time to achieve balance but not kill the dancer by dragging the whole series on too long. I crossed my fingers with Nakamura, just as I did in the past with Patricia Barker and Noelani Pantastico, just as I did on dress rehearsal night with Carla Körbes, just as I will when I go back later this week. If YouTube could project clearly to a life-size screen, I’d probably cross my fingers for Margot Fonteyn too.

It’s not as though Aurora doesn’t spend enough time on her toes. Throughout the entire night, she has opportunity after opportunity to hold precarious balances a little longer than we’re used to. Nakamura took advantage of many of these opportunities. It gave her normally light movement even more air.

In Act I, and later in the ballet, Nakamura’s powerful musicality and refined precision is continuously on display. She can do legato and quick in the very same phrase. And then there is her acting: I got chills when she nicked her finger on the spindle.

Act II didn’t lack for good acting, or for good dancing, or even for pretty costumes. (This act happens 100 years later, and we see that in the fashions.) Ariana Lallone gave a compelling acting performance as the Countess who hopes for more than the Prince is willing to give her. Jordan Pacitti’s Tutor submits to being blindfolded for blindman’s bluff with the resigned rancor of one inured to court ladies’ insensitivity. Lucien Postlewaite gave the brooding Prince some panache, dancing with that sexy tricorne in hand, as though he were merely walking about rather than turning out his signature sleek jumps. He finishes up and coolly places his hat on his head, no visible signs of being out of breath. Although he’s about to become a bit of a doofus when confronted with the Lilac Fairy and her strange tale, here he is dashing. If he had been in a Western, he’d have blown on his pistol and given it a few casual spins before letting it land in his holter.

Act Three opens up to gold and blue: gorgeous! More promenades and a healthy dose of gratuitous dancing.

The Gold and Silver Pas de Trois went to Carrie Imler, Andrew Bartee, and Karel Cruz. They were an oddly match threesome. I found myself wishing Imler (strength and speed with not the slightest sign of being rushed) were flanked by Benjamin Griffiths and James Moore. This is not to say at all that Bartee and Cruz danced poorly. Bartee is gaining upper-body elegance to help his enthusiastic legwork, and he’s not a bad match for Cruz’s long-limbed reach. They just didn’t seem to be dancing with Imler. I will never forget how exquisite this pas de trois was the one time I saw it with three dancers whose styles were more similar. Imler deserves that—and so do the two men.

Rausch and Pacitti danced the finicky feline and her randy tomcat with character. Very cute.

Mara Vinson and Jonathan Porretta danced Princess Florine and Bluebird. Yes, this sequence is generally all about the Bluebird, but Vinson—charmed by the Bluebird—is no less charming herself. She was so strong, too, holding onto balances. (Practicing for her own turn as Aurora on Friday night?) 

Porretta’s light jumps won more than just the heart of Princess Florine, It wasn’t a huge stretch of imagination to pretend he was a bird, so airborne was he. Perhaps it was the ruffled cuff that drew my attention to his hands, but I don’t remember seeing them look so particularly elegant before. Had I just missed it before? Could it be cross-pollination from his time with Whim W’Him, where hands are so important?

Leanne Duge and Barry Kerollis danced Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Oh my goodness, Duge made a charming Red Riding Hood! Talk about making the most of a character! I was thinking, as we clapped for her and her sneaky Wolf Kerollis, that it was not so many years ago since we saw Vinson in that role. What corps member today will be dancing Aurora in years to come? Any thoughts on that? Any bets? When you think about how much goes into making it happen—skill, training, talent, personality, health, coaching—and then realize that even with all those you still need a director or stager or teacher who sees something in your that others can’t see yet…

Nakamura and Postlewaite made good work of the Grand Pas de Deux in Act III, in spite of two out of four fish dives gone awry. A friend suggested they were not well-matched, but I think they work well together. (I would have loved to see them together in “Roméo et Juliette;” and Körbes paired with Moore.) What exactly went amiss with these death-defying dives? Is it the length of the ballet? The amount of rehearsal time? Or is it just something that happens? At any rate, it was not the last image I have of them. That would be their triumphant finish, having nailed the hands-free version of that fish dive…not to mention thousands of other sparkling, energetic, precise, and graceful steps in that long pas de deux of theirs.

In looking over my notes to see what I’ve forgotten to include in this too-wordy review, I see a scribble about Aurora’s friends in Act I, particularly Abby Relic and Liora Reshef, looking fresh and together in their movement.

There’s a happy “KG” scrawled in one corner, celebrating the return of Kiyon Gaines, back from an injury. Maria Chapman is still on the injured list (sigh!); Stanko Milov won’t be prince-ing around during this rep because of an injury (sigh!); and Stacy Lowenberg injured her foot just last week and so we won’t get to see her charming Lilac Fairy (sigh!). It feels like PNB started SleepingBeauty with more injuries than the Colts and Saints took into their own SuperBowl.

There’s a note about student Michelle Le’s pleasant peasant demeanor. The movement is not so hard, I think, but her naturalness onstage and her line stood out for me.

There’s a note, too, about how cute it was that Otto Neubert’s King Florestan had to bend so far down to Nakamura to administer a fatherly kiss on her brow.

And another about how pretty the confetti looked when the Prince wakes up Beauty.

And another about the darling maypole effect.
No notes about the flying, which worked well, but a note about Carabosse’s pyro bolt that kills a suitor and how we see that suitor’s skeleton 100 years later. Cool!

There is another set of notes—musical ones. I’m still hearing them five days after the show. They’re not written with pen in my notebook, though. They’re etched in my brain by Nakamura’s precise, darting steps.

Sleeping Beauty runs through the end of this week. For tix, visit pnb.org.

* I learned this in Doug Fullington’s PNB seminar a few weeks ago. First came Petipa’s version. Nicolai Sergeyev restaged it for the Ballets Russes in 1921. Then, in 1930, Ninette de Valois hired him to teach it to Sadler Wells (now Royal Ballet). It was this 1930 version that Hynd and his wife/assistant learned in the ‘40s. Hynd staged his own adaptation of it for English National Ballet in 1993. Changes included adding an extra fairy (so that the Lilac Fairy is #7, flanked by three and three), adding more work for the men, adding the garland waltz and additional  male solos.). PNB acquired the entire production in 2001, when English National Ballet got a new production.
By the way, Hind choreographed darling “Merry Widow” that entered PNB’s repertory in 2002.