Despite its advertising, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty, which premiered on Friday, January 31, 2014, at McCaw Hall, may not be the accessible tutu ballet that any non-dancer friend will love. This three-plus hour experience is a long one, even for dedicated viewers. But that’s not to say the production doesn’t offer something magical and worthwhile; in fact, those with an appetite for once-upon-a-time will be handsomely rewarded. There’s the sumptuous sets and costumes by Peter Docherty that create the framework for an exquisite pageantry of fairies, kings, queens, and princesses in an array of rich jewel and pastel tones. Plus the thrilling music by Tchaikovsky and choreography by Ronald Hynd (based on Marius Petipa’s 1890 original), the experience has the theatricality of a super Nutcracker.
The ballet is set in a fairytale kingdom, and opens on the celebration of the birth of its new princess, Aurora (portrayed later by Kaori Nakamura). A myriad of beautiful fairies bless the baby—Angelica Generosa’s “Fairy of Joy” was a sassy and sparkling addition to this group—only to be interrupted by the wicked fairy godmother Carabosse, who literally flies onto the stage. Wearing a hoop skirt and a prosthetic nose, Jonathan Porretta clearly had fun creating this character, and it couldn’t have been more enjoyable to watch.
The jealous Carabosse almost ruins everything by cursing the baby to a horrible fate: at the age of sixteen, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. Luckily for King Florestan and his Queen, the benevolent Lilac Fairy (performed with warm and gracious dancing by Laura Tisserand) saves the day. While she can’t take back the curse, she can change it for the better: Aurora will not die; rather, she will fall into a magical sleep, only to be awakened with true love’s kiss (a.k.a., when the studly Seth Orza arrives and kisses Nakamura on the cheek).
By the next scene, we’ve fast-forwarded in time to Aurora’s Sweet Sixteen celebration. In the famous Rose Adagio, Nakamura warmed up to the role’s demanding balances on a single pointe—gaining a stronger and longer balance each time she let go of her partner. Aside from some slightly cautious balances, the ballerina went beyond just sound technicality. With the help of Orza, she tackled dangerous-looking lifts directly out of whirling turns like a fearless, gravity-loving modern dancer. While she may be the most senior member of the company, Nakamura can bring girlish and dynamic roles like Aurora, Juliet, and Kitri to life like no other. After seventeen years with PNB, she hasn’t aged a day.
After Aurora is kissed by her true love, the final scene takes place at her and the prince’s wedding. In a ballet dominated by tutus, it was refreshing to see Orza’s elegant and powerful dancing, as well as Andrew Bartee and Jerome Tisserand as “Gold.” Another standout from the wedding scene was Leta Biasucci in the role of Princess Florine. It’s hard to imagine the precise and radiant Biasucci, one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” from 2013, staying in the corps for long.
One great benefit of a production like Sleeping Beauty is that it showcases both the company’s established and rising stars, from the most novice corps de ballet members to students from the PNB school who may someday rise through the company ranks. The chance to appreciate the ensemble started before the curtain even rose with Artistic Director Peter Boal announcing five company promotions. Lilac Fairy Tisserand and Lindsi Dec were promoted from soloist to principal. Dec danced with strong energy and a glowing smile as “Silver”; she truly moved like a dancer worthy of her new post. Corps-to-soloist promotions included emerging choreographer and former Princess Grace Award winner, Margaret Mullin, as well as Elizabeth Murphy and William Lin-Yee.
Despite the exciting movement within the company, the largest recognition of the night went to Nakamura. The principal dancer announced she will retire from the stage and join the PNB school faculty in June. From the moment she entered, to her final pas de deux with Orza, the audience showed their gratitude for her every move with applause, sighs, and finally, a roaring standing ovation. Nakamura has always been a steady and reliable force on the McCaw Hall stage and it’s strange to think this artist, small in stature but mighty in impression, will soon take her last reverence with the company.
Sleeping Beauty was a wonderful opportunity to see the entire company in action, but especially Nakamura. For any dancer native to Seattle, it’s bittersweet to think of no longer seeing this beautiful mover, physical storyteller, and impressive technician we’ve been watching for seventeen years—like saying good-bye to an old friend. Sleeping Beauty is a valuable ballet for many reasons, but Nakamura makes it worth seeing if only to watch and honor this masterful ballerina in her last year.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty runs from now until February 9, 2014 at McCaw Hall. For tickets and more information, see pnb.org.