Apollinaire: Making megabuck ballets better [plus-- hot off the presses!--dialogue with choreographer and dance critic Leigh Witchel!]

It is terrible to spend an evening at a million-dollar ballet and feel that in the end it wasn’t worth it. This art form doesn’t have that much money to waste. So before another disappointment hits the stage — the new “Sleeping Beauty” this spring by Kevin McKenzie and kooky Gelsey Kirkland (the onetime Michael Jackson of the ballet world) for American Ballet Theatre, perhaps? or will it be Peter Martins’ “Romeo and Juliet” for the New York City Ballet? — some thoughts on how megabuck ballets might forestall mediocrity. Pardon my presumption.
As it has just completed a two-week run here, my prompt is Martins’ “The Sleeping Beauty”; it could easily have been some other so-so multi-act ballet, as the so-sos dominate, maybe especially among the “Beautys.”
Reviewers have criticized the Martins production for overefficiency, citing the cuts in the score. But the 1965 film of the Kirov-Konstantin Sergeyev “Sleeping Beauty,” with Alla Sizova and a young Natalia Makarova, is a wonder– and clocks in at an hour and a half. I don’t think the problem is length so much as pacing and staging that divert us from the story’s deep currents. With backup support from an expert in storytelling in theatre (a dramaturge? a director? a mensch, definitely) who also possesses musical sensitivity, Martins could take care of these problems. (In fact, he still can!! Unlike books or movies, you can revise a ballet. So how about it, guys?)
The drama in “The Sleeping Beauty” lies in the contrast between two realms: the magisterial, etiquette-bound Court and a whimsical, borderless fairyland. The ballet needs to establish from the get-go the distinction between them.
The curtain opens on the baby princess’s christening party. Tchaikovsky offers dutiful marches to suggest the parade of arriving guests, and a zip-zip of violins for the servants’ last minute preparations. What does Martins do? He has a small retinue of courtiers and ladies genuflect, stroll, and stand about.
If he had deployed the geometry of pomp and circumstance –the courtiers marching in grid formation, the hired help zigzagging through their ranks on those skitters of violin–we’d be prepared for the difference when Tchaikovsky turned to his soft fairy motif.
But Martins would first have to recognize that difference. His fairies enter as if members of the Court: single file behind the king and queen. (So if the Fairy of Courage walks behind Generosity, does that mean she’s lower rank?) Then they line up and salute the king. Excuse me, but fairies are their own sovereigns, the subjects not of kings but of mysterious laws. They should seem to enter through walls and window panes, the dancers softly bourreeing from every wing like the radii of a star. Laws of mass and gravity don’t apply to fairies.
Martins’ use of mime to create character is excellent, his use of dance, not so much. He doesn’t have the evil Carabosse dance at all, though Tchaikovsky’s jagged music cries out for it. She could wildly caricature each of the other fairies’ gratifyingly individual variations. She and her hench-bugs could jump up on the down beat, and down on the up: the rhythm– like a hand over a basketball that tamps its bounce to a stutter–invites it. She could come equipped with ball and chain, which she skims along the floor, forcing the guests to play a harrowing game of jump rope.
Ridiculous, you say? Whatever. The point is we have to feel in our gut the threat this witch poses. Most “Sleeping Beautys” are content to give us the idea that she’s scary: not good enough. We have to experience the adrenaline rush of fear, if not fear itself. That is, we could laugh: If it’s fierce enough, comedy gives the body a kick, too.
Tchaikovsky’s variation for Carabosse goes on and on. Carabosse enters and dances around, then notices her foes, the good fairies–and dances around some more. She cackles and harrumphs even after her doom is sealed. Her variation is longer than any of the other fairies’, including that of the supreme Lilac Fairy. A smart director or dramaturge would have advised Martins not to shorten this passage, because it is essential to Carabosse’s evil that she be prolix: wickedness never knows when to stop. And it’s fun for the audience. For a hundred years after his death, Shakespeare’s most popular play was not “King Lear” or “Romeo and Juliet” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but “Richard III.”
Even when Martins’ cuts are judicious, as they are much of the time, they’re often herky-jerky in execution. He might have taken his cues from David Mitchell’s delicate slide projections, with their cinematic effects. For artful transitions, he could have created the stage equivalent of dissolves or jump cuts.
For the hunting scene, haughty Prince Desire and the coquettish countess could have flirted downstage while a continuous line of hunters, peasants, buglers, hounds and horses (played by dancers?) streamed from wing to wing upstage: time passing. As it is, the aristocrats show up, set out their picnic, pack up and leave before they’ve bit into a single drumstick. If a scene is reduced to nothing but arrival and departure, accentuate that, at least.
I have my vision-scene fantasies: to restore the violin solo that the original choreographer, Marius Petipa, foolishly cut and that Balanchine borrowed a part of to prepare us for entry into the land of dreams and sweets–and for the grandest moment in “Nutcracker,” when the Christmas tree rises to the roof. Tchaikovsky intended the piece for the Imperial Theatre’s violinist, Leopold Auer, teacher of Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein. The solo perfectly complements the extant violin solo, which introduces a dream Aurora to the prince. A choreographer could use the long-lost beauty to show the prince’s feelings deepening after the first throes of infatuation and the 30 seconds of zippy violins that illustrate it. (That would require moving the solo to earlier–scandalous!). The lovers’ wedding at the ballet’s apotheosis would mean something then.
But Martins’ vision scene is already quite lovely, his wedding pas de deux and processional touching. The problem is really the first act–and that it’s the first act (sometimes called a prologue). We are weary by the time the ballet picks up.
When Balanchine was learning his chops, ballets mainly told stories. He changed all that, of course, and the result is that it’s been hard to go back to stories. Many of today’s choreographers never had a story ballet made on them when they were dancers, and some did not dance in any. They know how to capitalize on the poetic potential of dance, but not at the same time that they tell a story. (Notable exceptions: Mark Morris and Christopher Wheeldon, and sporadically ABT’s Kevin McKenzie. Excellent news on the Morris front: he will premiere a “Romeo and Juliet” for his troupe in 2008 to the long-suppressed original Prokofiev score and libretto, which ends happily, of all things!! With his imminent departure from NYCB, it’s too bad Wheeldon hasn’t had a chance to create a full-length ballet New Yorkers could see; by many accounts, his “Swan Lake” for the Pennsylvania Ballet was wonderful.)
But stories still prevail in other arts, and choreographers should enlist the help of their practitioners. A couple of years ago, the famous Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou directed a ballet version of his film “Raise the Red Lantern.” The ballet’s steps may have been humdrum, but Zhang’s direction was sublime. Choreographers don’t need a genius, though, and they don’t have to give the director pride of place. They just need to borrow a pair of eyes.
Maybe the extra support would take some of the pressure off these expensive ventures, and the choreographers would have more fun. I think that’s part of what critics meant when they said Martins’ “Sleeping Beauty” was too “efficient.” It didn’t seem to be having enough fun.
********
[This just in from choreographer and dance critic Leigh Witchel. For easy reading I have put our initials between questions and answers]
Hi Apollinaire -
Thanks for a very provocative post. Some questions:
Why do you think that Carabosse’s music is music for dancing instead of mime?
AS: Hi, Leigh. Because it moves! Carabosse’s variation doesn’t have to preclude mime–the passage, which choreographers normally slim down, is quite long–but for such dancey music it seems perverse to have the dancer never dance at all. Plus, she’s a vigorous lady–wickedness expends a lot of calories–so moving seems like a natural idiom for her. In that 1965 Kirov movie gem, Carabosse Dudenskaya is a firestorm of movement.
LW: The same with the entr’acte, though Ashton did choreograph a pas de deux to it that was excised later.
AS: Well, first you’d need to MOVE the violin solo–the entr’acte, as it’s now called– from where it traditionally falls, nonsensically after the Lilac Fairy journey in the boat, to earlier, so it can serve not as an entr’acte, but as part of the action.
It’s a lonely bit of music and would go well for a solo–maybe that was Ashton’s problem (besides placement). You’re right that the violin solo doesn’t demand to be danced to the way the wicked fairy music does, but a solo for the prince would be an occassion for us to get to know him before he gets married. Though I agree that Nureyev’s “Beauty” was wretched [see below], I am one of those people who likes the dancer-choreographer’s idea for “Swan Lake” of giving Prince Siegfried a solo before he heads out to the woods. (ABT’s version honors this.) The solo surreptitiously prepares us for his romance with Odette. “The Sleeping Beauty’s” prince could use some emotional beefing up, too. When someone else loves the person we love–whether Odette or Aurora–it only augments our own feelings of joy (or, in the case of Odette, loss). And the drama is deeper, more real, when this other is a person, not a cipher. To become one, Prince Desire could use another dance.
LW: Why do you see the dichotomy in “Beauty” as between the fairy world and the world of the court? I get that in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for instance, but why here?
As the tone of my questions suggests, I’m just not thoroughly convinced here. My case in point would be Nureyev’s constant revisions of “Sleeping Beauty,” each one worse than the last. The ballet doesn’t need an innovator. It needs an advocate.
AS: The fairy world and the world of the court may be compatible, but they’re not the same. The fairy world is eternal and magical, the world of the court temporal and bound by physical laws. The contrast is in the music, which is all we can be 100 percent sure of about the original ballet. I don’t see my provocations as discarding tradition, but finding its spirit in the music and in the best of past iterations (for example, all those fairy dances and everything Aurora does in the court and in dream, all of which Martins preserves. YAY!) Forward to Petipa, I say!
Thank you, Leigh, for your thoughts.
[ed. note: Leigh responds to my responses here.]

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