My most treasured book on dance is Leon Harris’ 1970 black-and-white photo essay, The Russian Ballet School. Though the school environs reek with Soviet-era drabness (stained floors, stitched clothing, barren concrete buildings in snowfields), there is also an elegant, Tsarist quality to the faces of the young dancers — haughty girls; handsome, exhausted boys; a classroom of standing dancers bearing the same poised, sly smile. But most of all, I remember the shot of a group of scared 10-year-old girls wearing only baggy underwear and ballet shoes as they undergo admission scrutiny; or the one featuring a line of boys with frayed undershirts and half-leotards bathing in hand sinks; or the headshot of a dancer shielding her face while her neck muscles reveal her contracted sobs. In these images, I can feel both the history of Russian ballet (the Moscow Ballet School began as an orphanage that had success training its institutionalized children in dance) as well as the stark emotional and physical cruelty that goes hand in hand with classical ballet.
Flash to 2010, and one of the best-selling ballet stories on the shelves is Lili at Ballet, a spoon-fed story about a happy, mild-mannered American ballet student who realizes her dream of dancing onstage in a school performance on a proscenium stage with costumes, props, and a full backdrop with lighting. Kids are taught a bunch of ballet vocabulary — and introduced to some famous ballet characters — via sweetly detailed pen-and-ink drawings by Rachel Isadora.
My 8-year-old daughter knows the book backward and forward.
So, with our two orientations, my kid and I set off to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty on Saturday night. Granted it’s a three-hour production, and it’d been a busy day already for my daughter, but she fell asleep within the first ten minutes, a record-breaker for her (cue the ceaseless “your sleeping beauty!” comments I heard during all three intermissions).
Seriously, when my daughter attends PNB’s contemporary programs with me, she usually gets a little droopy about two-thirds of the way through, but rarely passes out. Predictably, she soars through The Nutcracker.
So what was this complete collapse at The Sleeping Beauty?
I think it was culture shock. Jet lag. Woozy, warping time. It seemed like a quite a few audience members had a similarly shell-shocked expression on their faces.
Here in Seattle, balletgoers have rarely seen such a strangely drafty and intense production as Ronald Hynd’s The Sleeping Beauty. In our formative years we were reared on Kent Stowell’s smooth, lyrical story ballets — works that Stowell hand-tailored to highlight the innate skills of his principal dancers, never giving anyone anything cruelly difficult to pull off, and always paying generously for the highest production values.
The Sleeping Beauty is the total reverse of this. Heavy curtains, patterned like a grandmother’s sofa slipcover, open on a stage so hollow it feels to have no dimension. The feather on Catalabutte’s hat as he walks across the stage is as large as an ocean wave. As soon as the ballet begins, dancers are asked to perform the hardest kinds of extensions and lifts and turns and allegro footwork — with absolutely nowhere to hide. This is a ballet in which entire characterizations rest on the success of a single move. If the lead ballerina doesn’t hit her balances in the Rose Adagio it won’t just be a momentary humiliation, it will diminish Aurora’s entire raison d’etre.
And the production values throughout are so bad they’re almost good. A slow-moving fog machine, hideous gilded branches, stinkbomb puffs of smoke when the wicked fairy Carabosse enters and rubbery snakes for her later that look like a Freudian gag. Compared to the sleek choreography and stylistic environs of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette, which ran at PNB earlier this fall, The Sleeping Beauty at times almost looks like a Marx Brothers routine, as when Aurora is heavily flicking a lifted foot at her suitors, or the prince and princess are running through a stand of corps de ballet dancers so lifeless it looks like the duo is playing tag amidst department-store clothing racks.
The costumes feel simply unsustainable now that we’ve fully crested the 21st century. King Florestan, in his paste-on goatee, looked like Rip Torn in a fur cape, and I personally find white tights on men an unnecessary distraction at this point. One other question: could there possibly have been mics on Tchaikovsky’s effusive triangles? More than one of us in my row was looking around to see if someone’s cell phone was ringing at several moments — they seemed that insistent.
Yet for me, The Sleeping Beauty earned its keep twice-over. Amidst a weirdly hushed audience, I watched the ballet feeling like I was walking through the halls of an empty, dilapidated museum and suddenly turning corners to find unbelievable treasures hanging there unassumingly.
The airborne transport that is teased in the ads for the ballet is underwhelming up on the wire but incredible within the floorbound choreography. The fairies, in the very first entrance, are swept in by their cavaliers in high lofty poses — their backs arching, their arms flown back, their legs parted in attitude. They look both angelic and ecstatic, a theme that repeats throughout the evening.
I’m most happy to report the dancers just nailed it all. Beyond all the technical feats, their absorption of the Russian style of adding a large head gesture to their epaulement rotations couldn’t have been better.
There are five solid casts for the production, but I felt particularly lucky to see Carrie Imler as Aurora. Her beautiful weightedness and impeccable turns only enhanced the Bolshovian aspect for me. And when Batkhurel Bold plunged her into the Grand Pas de Deux’s climactic swan dives, they were absolutely perfect, dramatic, and conclusive.
It’s gutsy for Peter Boal to stage a production that requires such a long suspension-of-disbelief and time commitment from his audience. Go see it before it’s too late. Bring an energy drink.
And consider it part of the authenticity if you end up like I did — with something akin to a dead, drunken lout passed out on your shoulder.
This piece originally ran on Crosscut.com.