The Sleeping Beauty is perhaps the quintessential story ballet, exemplifying the golden age of late 19th century Russian productions. It originally premiered in 1890, with a score by Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa. The Pacific Northwest Ballet’s choreography, by Ronald Hynd, is based on the original Petipa, and at a full three hours long, is a commitment to re-living history. Sitting in the theater it is easy to imagine yourself in a different era, experiencing lavish entertainment in a world that has yet to see the cultural and technological advancements of the 20th Century. History always gives context for understanding where we’ve come from, and seeing a piece like Sleeping Beauty is a chance to reflect on how Petipa has held up over the years.
Because Hynd’s choreography is based on the original, I can’t know 100% which moments are complete historical reproductions, but there are certain moments that belie a goofiness that presumably is still in the choreography because that’s how it was originally done. For instance, an over-use of fondu en pointe, which is one of the less flattering positions for the human form. There’s also rather anti-climactic battle between the prince and a couple of bent-over hags, scurrying around him with rubber snakes. The Fairy of Wit variation, with index fingers pointing skyward, is completely hilarious in a post-disco world. I don’t mean to put these things down—they may not be choreographic triumphs, but indulging the goofiness of story ballets is part of the fun.
A timeless delight is seeing ballerinas “fly”- suspended above the stage like Christmas ornaments. You can see the wire, but the mechanical nature of it is oh-so charming and the thrill of seeing a human leave the ground is undoubtedly the same as it was 130 years ago. Another enchanting moment is during the garland waltz, when the dancers assemble into a circular tower, the innermost dancer lifted high, encircled by ballerinas perched on their partner’s shoulders, rotating like a three-tiered human wedding cake.
The Sleeping Beauty is known for its variations. Every fairy and party guest gets a moment in the spotlight. And while a study in techniques of the era, many of them require a certain amount ballet nerdiness to actually get excited about them. To put it bluntly, they can get a bit repetitive and boring. Even the coveted main role of Aurora, notoriously technically difficult, is often treacherous in non-flashy ways—tricky transitions and endless time en pointe that may be hard for a non-balletomane to truly appreciate. The more dynamic pieces of choreography, and music, do wonders to highlight those dancing them. Angelica Generosa positively sparkles as the fluttering Fairy of Joy, and her exuberance continues through the group fairy dances as well. Leta Biasucci is beyond exquisite as Princess Florine, where her speed and precision is only outdone by her seemingly effortless suspension, each moment lingering like she has all the time in the world. Both Generosa and Biasucci will dance Aurora during the two-week run, and I’d love to see what they’d do with the part. On opening night Lesley Rausch played the role, and shone most beautifully in the wedding pas de deux along with partner Jerome Tisserand. Again, this is in part because it’s the most compelling piece of choreography Petipa makes for Aurora. Rausch nails the perfectly balanced arabesques and makes the terrifying front-développé-back-bend-en-pointe look easy. The pair crossing the stage, each pirouette landing in arabesque only to instantly topple into a fish dive is nothing short of breathtaking.
The Sleeping Beauty has its moments, but in a three-hour long ballet there’s a lot of time that functions mostly as a glorified fashion show. The scenic and costume design, by Peter Docherty, is beyond gorgeous. The prologue and each of the three acts have a distinct aesthetic that keeps the lengthy ballet from ever becoming monotonous. And with thirty or forty people on stage almost all the time, this is an extensive wardrobe. Opulent jewel toned silk court dresses, the festive springtime regalia of the garland waltz, and glittering golden capes. When the timeline moves forward one hundred years, the costumes shift from a medieval look to tri-cornered hats and wide panniers, recalling an 18th century court in plush, colorful velvets.
The costumes also help highlight what is perhaps the choreographic star of the show, the corps de ballet. Green tutus flash purple underneath as the skirt bobs with the dancer in celebration of Aurora’s birth. Later, the corps becomes a sea of shimmering, soft-skirted nymphs in which Prince Florimund has a vision of his future bride. The corps functions here as a shifting maze and a physical obstacle that Florimund must navigate to find Aurora—almost like capricious mist that reveals and conceals, perpetually pulling the couple apart. It’s a lovely bit of choreographic storytelling that doesn’t rely on the miming that dominates classical story ballets. The kaleidoscopic spatial formations of the corps, weaving in and out of each other, then suddenly turning to reveal a new unexpected formation, is where Petipa/Hynd shows true genius.
Also on opening night, a bit of ballet news with two promotions inside the PNB ranks. Elle Macy and Dylan Wald were both promoted to soloists.
The Sleeping Beauty runs through February 10, 2019 at McCaw Hall. For tickets, visit PNB.org.