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Hubbe’s Sublime Prince Lends Class to Brisk `Sleeping Beauty’

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on January 4, 2007.

Jan. 4 (Bloomberg) — Nikolaj Hubbe was not merely the most poetic player in last night’s return of “The Sleeping Beauty” at the New York State Theater. He was, of all the Prince Desires I’ve seen, the most convincing. He made the situation of a young prince yearning for love completely believable, something that could really happen to a guy in the street or in a forest, now or long, long ago.

A fairy shows him a vision of a princess who’s been asleep for 100 years, but only in fugitive glimpses. With the power of his imagination, Hubbe makes us see what he’s thinking: This girl is perfection, but is she real? And, if she is, will I be able to make her mine? Doubt and incredulous joy fluctuate in his every move. He’s not thinking of happily ever after yet. He’s thinking of right now.

There were other pleasures to be had on opening night of the New York City Ballet’s two-week run of Peter Martins’s 1991 version of the Petipa-Tchaikovsky ballet of 1890: Wendy Whelan’s unlikely yet touchingly wise rendering of Aurora, a role utterly mismatched to her considerable gifts; Jennie Somogyi’s musical and beautifully sculpted dancing as the Lilac Fairy; Teresa Reichlen’s lush, witty Diamond in the Wedding Scene; as well as the spunk and meticulous grace of the many children from the School of American Ballet.

Mime Allergy

Overall, though, the New York City Ballet, bred in Balanchine’s neo-classical style, doesn’t inspire confidence when it tries to move in the 19th-century classical tradition. Most of the dancers look brittle, hemmed in, as if speaking an unfamiliar language. Still, that’s not the main problem. The main problem lies with the production itself.

Martins assumes, with good reason, that his audience enjoys the old-fashioned pleasures of a good story and lavish scenic effects. Yet he’s also convinced, again rightly, that such viewers are primarily interested in movement — the more athletically extraordinary, the better. Further, that they’re allergic to mime, not overly concerned about psychological depth and indifferent to the ballet’s moral lessons. And that they have extremely short attention spans.

Martins has proved he’s right, of course, by selling lots of tickets. Let other companies — notably the Kirov in 1999 and the Royal Ballet last year — produce lavish, historically based, even beguiling productions. Neither speaks directly to the here and now. By contrast, Martins’s “Beauty” is unabashedly contemporary. Beginning with its reduction from nearly four hours to two and a half, it is ruthlessly efficient. It’s brisk and to the point, devoid of metaphor and subtlety.

Prince Nikolaj

If it’s soul you’re looking for, you must look elsewhere. Unless, that is, you catch Hubbe in the several alternating casts and keep your eyes focused exclusively on the Prince.

New York City Ballet is at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center through Feb. 25; “The Sleeping Beauty” will be performed through Jan. 14. Information: +1-212-721-6500 or http://www.nycballet.org.

© 2007 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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