What American Ballet Theatre might do about its new “Sleeping Beauty”

I have been ruminating about American Ballet Theatre’s “The Sleeping Beauty”–first in excited anticipation, here and here and here, then in more sober post-premiere reflection, here and here and here–for so long, you’d think I would have exhausted the subject.
Nope!–especially now that ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, who choreographed this version with former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland and director Michael Chernov, has said he plans to fiddle with it and Kirkland has admitted they didn’t have enough time in the first place.
But before I launch into how they might pull the ballet together, first, why it’s worth the effort. In case you haven’t heard, the June premiere was met with gleeful contempt, or Mosaic reprobation, by ballet fans and critics alike. Enjoy it at your own risk: when I mentioned to a critic friend that I liked whole swatches of the three-hour ballet, she nodded sympathetically. “I know how you feel,” she said. “I like Jorma Elo.”
I used to teach English (college and high school), where I encountered two species of flawed essay. One was full of excellent ideas, but too skittish to connect them up. The other offered nothing to distract you from its skeleton: no blood, no muscle, no guts.
For the first, the student needed to slow down and take herself seriously–choose a focus and organize the piece around it. For the second, the poor dope needed to learn how to think. I know that’s a vague assignment, but the writing didn’t prompt anything more precise.
Peter Martins’ “Romeo + Juliet,” the other full-length story ballet to debut this spring, belongs to the latter category. (It too was slammed, but no harder than “The Sleeping Beauty.”) The Martins ballet, which returns to the State Theater this winter, inspires exactly one question: Why?
The reason Martins offered journalists was that he wanted to accentuate the story’s youthful element. His plan was to cast young. Youth is already a big subject of the Prokofiev score and the Shakespeare play, both of which oppose the impetuous, devoted young lovers to their hidebound, powerful older kin. If you eliminate the counterbalances, as Martins mainly has, youth stops meaning much beyond the biological fact. Casting young doesn’t begin to answer the question Martins might have started with: what about youth?
As The New Yorker dance critic, Joan Acocella, explained in her review of “Romeo + Juliet” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” the dunderheaded approach is the more common:

In old ballets–the first “Sleeping Beauty,” choreographed by Marius Petipa, had its première in 1890–meanings tend to get lost in revision. In new ballets, there is often no meaning to start with. Anyone on a quest for significance in classical dance is therefore a friend.

McKenzie et. al.’s imaginative mess is a friend. It has the ebullient “Let’s put on a show” spirit you’re more likely to encounter at PS 122 in the East Village–with spangled pomo burlesque dancer Julie Atlas Muz, say–than at the Met. You can imagine the creators exclaiming at their planning sessions, “Hey, I have an idea! Let’s have the evil fairy ride in on a firecracker!” or “Hey, let’s have fairy knights whirl the prince around in his sleep!!” or “Hey, how about if Carabosse [the evil fairy] turns into a SPIDER and catches the prince in her big shiny WEB?!”
Watching it, I thought of the summer a shy friend exclaimed to every pretty boy she met, “Hey, I have an idea! Let’s go make out!” Yeah, the summer turned into a disaster, but for a while it was very fun.
ABT’s “The Sleeping Beauty” is a disaster first–the pileup of wrong moves sapping the right ones of their juice–but with serious revising, it could get to fun and even to deep.
The problems fall into two categories. First, random, often distractingly comical snafus that should be easy to fix, such as:
–”the shower curtain,” as the low-hanging sheet upstage through which the fairies make their grand entrance has come to be known; it is suspended limply from those round clips everyone associates with the shower. People have complained they could see the off-duty fairies through it, laughing and flirting.
According to advance interviews, the creators wanted to better distinguish the royal court from the magical fairy realm, with only our heroine, Aurora, and her prince straddling the two domains. So, yes, the fairies should enter by a different path from the genuflecting courtiers and their ladies, and a window on the limitless sky is perfect. But for a window shade, why not something splendid, such as iridescent folds streaming from the rafters like sheets of rainbow-flecked rain?
–the variation of Bluebird and Princess Florine, which in this version serves as a wedding gift to the princess bride and prince groom. (What a nice touch!) Especially in the first pas de deux, the steps move against the music’s whirl–its evocation not only of the twitter of birds in love, but of their encircling one another as they wing their way up shafts of air. Here, the movement is more up and down than scalloping ’round and ’round. It will make you gnash your teeth.
Of course, if you have watched very many versions of this ballet, your teeth are already thoroughly gnashed. Of those I have seen–and unfortunately I missed the Kirov’s definitive historical reconstruction of 1999–only the 1965 Konstantin Sergeyev-Kirov film comes close to doing justice to this moment, with Princess Florine (a young Natalia Makarova) twirled deep in penché.
–the shrunken space for dancing caused by Broadway designer Tony Walton’s sweet storybook set (discussed earlier). The ivy-laden trestles that frame the stage may remind us that we are entering a story, a kingdom of enchantment, but the choreography already does that. The dancers can’t afford to lose several yards to the idea on a stage that’s not very wide to begin with. (The Met was built for opera: unlike the State Theater across the plaza, its stage is already deeper than ideal for ballet and less wide.) Forcing the dancers to move small is a terrible waste of their astounding expansiveness, one of the company’s greatest resources.
The more interesting problems–isn’t it nice that the problems might be interesting for once?–concern the dream logic that shapes the plot.
The prologue is quite traditional. The revisions begin in earnest with the first act, the birthday act. In most versions, the master of ceremonies, Catalabutte, discovers a clutch of weird women harboring spindles. He drags the old ladies to Aurora’s father, King Florestan, who orders their heads. After much pleading, the queen persuades her husband to exercise mercy. The immediate result? Evil fairy Carabosse is on hand to deliver a spindle to the unsuspecting princess–and, of course, the girl pricks herself.
In most versions, the plot points are laid out in Tarzan fashion: King mad at old ladies; king relents; girl pricked; girl faints; kingdom sleeps. To explain the exalted place “The Sleeping Beauty” holds in the ballet canon, critics end up invoking those big, blocky themes we all gratefully abandoned with high school–Good versus Evil, Mercy versus Justice, blah, blah. There’s no reason, though, that the story couldn’t move a little closer to the dancing, which is now its own story. If story and dancing united forces, we might enjoy not only a glorious experience but a deep one.
So, in place of the old women, ABT offers village maidens. They use the spindle that Carabosse gives them as a maypole. Catalabutte discovers these girls spinning out the blood-red ribbons to a bumpy tune–a peasant version of the increasingly agitated and discordant waltz to which Aurora will be dancing when she pricks herself. (With Tchaikovsky, waltzes can be dangerous, the mechanism of desire wound so tight, nothing can stop it.) The budding women’s bouncy dance foreshadows Aurora’s own exultation in her growing maturity.
In most versions, the connection between King Florestan’s decision to forgive the needle-bearers and Aurora’s descent into centuries of sleep is merely causal: his act of mercy creates a loophole by which Carabosse can sneak a spindle to Aurora. But here, with the girls acting as the princess’s symbolic surrogates, the king’s choice is mixed up in his decisions about how to raise his child. He lets the innocent girls off the hook for playing with needles, and he lets Aurora build her own victories and make her own mistakes. Linked to child-rearing, the theme of mercy versus justice comes to life.
The production emphasizes how big a deal the king’s decision is by how long he takes to make it, with his fist suction-cupped to his forehead for what feels like whole minutes while the music thunders around him and the court waits in frozen anticipation.
King Florestan’s choice of mercy is in the long run (very long–hundreds of years) the right decision. You do the right thing, and in the end it will all work out for the best (as Pangloss would say): your daughter will wed a noble prince, and love and live well. But for us to feel this Enlightenment optimism–that his child is going to approach life with joy, so when the Fairy of Joy sings for her she will already know the tune–the choreographers can’t minimize the maypole scene. The dancing needs to be equal to the momentous decision it occasions. Right now, it’s squinched onto the lip of the stage, before the palace gates, and the girls don’t dance so much as indicate they’re dancing.
I appreciate the special problem that “The Sleeping Beauty” presents to anyone who approaches it anew: the steps that have come down from the original are so brilliant that any interpolated choreography is bound to feel inadequate. But the solution isn’t to downplay choreographic opportunities (out of understandable terror), but to use the prodigious movement invention of the original (or as close as we have) as a guide for more invention.
Broadly speaking, the famous Rose Adagio, Aurora’s coming-out dance with five suitors attending her, emphasizes balance and orderly progression. She moves methodically from prince to prince and balance to balance. When she gets into trouble, it’s because she has let loose and accelerated too fast, forsaking straight lines for a large circle, which she navigates with faster and faster spins and jumps. Inevitably, she pricks herself.
How about the communal equivalent for the village maidens–a circle dance that rises to a bacchanalian pitch? Tchaikovsky’s bright tune is already inspired by folk-dance rhythms. McKenzie could enlist the services of Balkan folk-dance expert Mark Morris. The villagers’ peasant dance could also accelerate and the threads from the spindle form a web to anticipate Carabosse’s web, in the next act. (Or if it’s impossible to manipulate the threads without slowing down the dance, lighting effects could do the job, or the women could make their designs with ribbons freed from the spindle entirely. In any case, the steps shouldn’t be sacrificed to the requirements of visual effects.)
In the most heavily revised act, the second, where we fast-forward 500 years (four centuries added to the usual) to the prince who will awaken Aurora with a kiss, the choreographers felt compelled to provide literal-minded “translations” of metaphors that, being metaphors, don’t translate. Once spelled out, they just evaporate.
Prince Desiré falls into a deep sleep before he meets Aurora in her sleep (the canonical Vision scene). The idea of them meeting dream to dream is lovely. And the initial passages of the prince’s dream, to the plaintive violin solo that usually serves as an entr’acte, are lovely, too. The fairy knights rush on and swirl him in their arms, then depart–mirroring the roil of desire inside him.
The tempestuous mood is spoiled, however, when slumbering Aurora is carted on and the knights stretch the prince overhead like Superman so he can take a peek. So much for subtlety and the subconscious.
The same sort of jarring over-enunciation mars the transition from his dream to hers, when we’re returned to the hunt so the prince can say good-bye to his friends. We don’t need to say good-bye–we’ve forgotten all about the hunt and would be happy to drift right into another dream.
McKenzie said in interviews that the prince needed “emotional beefing up,” which the prince’s dream begins. People have complained that attention to him dims the spotlight on our heroine, but you could just as soon argue the opposite: that his growing up only makes hers clearer and dearer. Or you could if his inner journey were more effectively expressed. Again, the execution doesn’t do justice to the idea.
It’s great to have the five fairies that bestowed joy, serenity, valor, etc. on Aurora return to do some bestowing on the prince. But the whole point of their gifts is that they’re individual, so why do the fairies appear in a nondescript clump? Why can’t he have a moment with each of them, where he translates their spikey feminine moves into danseur noble terms?
The special effects also serve as over-explanations, and supplant opportunities for dance to carry us further into the story. After his dream, the prince heads to the spellbound forest where the wicked Carabosse is waiting to ensnare him in her web. (She’s a spider now.) Tchaikovsky’s forest music suspends time and direction, with the muffled footsteps of the jagged wicked fairy motif the only percussive notes. The music is like Lethe–a place to which you lose yourself to indefinition. Very slowly and softly, the Lilac Fairy’s melody rises like dawn from the murk.
The scene starts promisingly, with Carabosse sending out her sticky threads so slowly, you know you’ve entered another dimension. Then it becomes clear that the reason for the gluey tempo is to give the dancer time to get rigged to her wires, from which she will dangle for too long. And the prince never progresses from limbo to clear light, but simply gets stuck in a splendid silver web like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man splayed inside his circle, and is then rescued by the Lilac Fairy, who appears out of nowhere on a high ledge. It’s scary, sure, but not to any purpose.
The trajectory of this production is wonderful: from life to dream to legend. “Once he’s kissed her and awakened her and the whole kingdom has risen, there’s a wedding — and the story is in essence over,” McKenzie explained in an interview I did for Newsday. “What’s left is, ‘Where do they go? Where is their new kingdom?’ They go to the stuff of legend.” They enter their own story, surrounded by characters from other stories.
McKenzie wouldn’t have had to do much to bring out that angle, because it’s already implied. He could have simply limited the wedding invitations to fairytale characters. With its scurry of violins alternating with trumpet and drum, Act Three’s opening march would perfectly usher in the one-of-a-kind characters–each storybook pair using the violin scurry to slip in from a different wing and join the winding defile. Then we could have their variations–including the ones that were cut!! If he’s going to honor his own idea, McKenzie can’t cut the variations of Puss ‘n’ Boots and his pussycat lady friend, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, and so forth–even to get us to the train on time. After all, we need that time to adjust to the beauty’s new status as legend.
Post script: I’m already imagining objections. (Sigh.) For example: “If the ABT production boils down to ‘good story, bad choreography,’ it’s in trouble, because it’s a dance….”
Well, first, I’ve focused on the flaws. There is plenty of wonderful dancing (much of it snagged from earlier productions, I admit): all the numbers in the prologue; the Garland Dance; the Rose Adagio and Aurora’s solo; the windswept comings and goings of the fairy knights in the prince’s dream; the whole Vision scene (I particularly love the forest sprites who bound into view just out of the prince’s sight with each new deerlike leap of notes: very playful); the wedding couple’s pas de deux and solos–and probably other passages that are not coming to mind right now. If the dances were consistently awful, I wouldn’t have made an argument for revision.
On the other hand, dance is a form of theatre–and for a story ballet, that means the story counts. You know those snobs who say they read novels solely for the language, the sonorities, the phrasing–forget plot and meaning!– and who can never get enough of “Finnegans Wake”? Well, the dance equivalent of that line of thinking is that only the steps matter–and what they say or that they say anything at all is beside the point. I don’t subscribe to that view.

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