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The Royal Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty / Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington DC / June 24, 2006

Life being a busy affair, the only performance of the Royal Ballet’s new/old Sleeping Beauty at Kennedy Center that I could get to was the Saturday matinee, June 24. Daytime performances don’t turn up the best known stars, but this occasion proved to be serendipitous. The 25-year-old Sarah Lamb, made a principal dancer less than a month ago, played Aurora, and her performance consoled me for my disappointment in the production.


Like the other major companies in the classical dance world, the Royal has streamlined, distorted, and generally tarted up its contemporary renditions of the 19th-century classics. Its previous two productions of Beauty within a dozen years failed on this account. To celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary, however, its artistic director, Monica Mason, chose to return to the Royal’s first Beauty, mounted in 1939, then given embellished–and definitive–form in 1946. This is the version with which the Royals conquered America in 1949. For decades, it served as the company’s signature and lodestone.

The choreographic text of the ballet, set to Tchaikovsky’s ravishing score, was created by Marius Petipa in 1890 for the company known today as the Kirov Ballet, resident at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. It was conveyed to the young British troupe by the former Maryinsky regisseur Nicholas Sergeyev–who had fled the Russian revolution “with his tin trunks full of notation books”–and godmothered by the troupe’s founder, Ninette de Valois. The present resurrection, staged by Monica Mason and Royal Ballet veteran Christopher Newton, adheres to much of the 1946 precedent (not ignoring additions and emendations by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell, and Christopher Wheeldon, and not without some inexplicably foolish calculations). It uses the 1946 Oliver Messel designs, realized and augmented by Peter Farmer.

Taken all in all, the result is a welcome return to decorum, to an exquisitely civilized world in which good and evil as well as human aspirations and foibles are set forth in scrupulous proportion, fantasy ever-present but never out of control. Why, then, is the effect of the production slightly fusty? This impression is largely, though not entirely, due to the passage of time; if sad, it is inevitable. Something else, however, is pulling down the present staging. I suspect it has to do with the way the company as a whole dances.

In the fairies’ variations and in the work of the ensemble in the Vision Scene, for example, you see the virtues of the English school of dancing: the harmonious line with its finely modeled port de bras, the soft attack, the precise, delicate footwork. But these features have become tiny and tame, devoid of the surging energy needed to give the spectator a visceral experience instead of one that’s merely pictorial. Absent too is the flow that can make a sequence of meticulously rendered steps musical.

Though Lamb has absorbed the Royal Ballet’s style–including its serene elegance of deportment–she isn’t a product of that company’s academy. Her British parents are U.S. residents, and she grew up in Boston, training at the Boston Ballet School. She joined the Boston Ballet in 1998; by 2003 she was not simply the company’s youngest principal but arguably its most promising.

Central to Lamb’s development in Boston was the teacher and coach Tatiana Legat, of whom Lamb has said, “My artistry as it stands has all blossomed from her.” After the Boston Ballet dismissed Legat–giving budgetary concerns as the reason–Lamb decided to extend her horizons. In 2004 she was snapped up by the Royal Ballet, where she proved herself in in a series of leading roles in major nineteenth- and twentieth-century classics. Early in June, following her debut as Aurora in London, she was made a principal dancer.

A blonde with a heart-shaped face, Lamb is very pleasant to look at–and beautifully proportioned. Her dancing has a lovely reticence; she grows on you slowly, drawing you into her imaginary world. She seems to have considerable intelligence and some flair for acting. You notice her firm technique only belatedly.

Granted, the performance I saw began tentatively; her Rose Adagio was marked by fear and trembling. She gained confidence as she progressed, although–perhaps restricted by a desire for correctness–she didn’t fully convey the mounting elation of the sixteen-year-old at her birthday party, the heedless joy that leads to her seizing the weapon meant to destroy her. I liked Lamb best in the Vision Scene, where she was convincingly impalpable (and my standard in this matter is Margot Fonteyn), as disembodied as smoke, yet all longing and burgeoning love.

I hope Lamb won’t be intimidated by her conversion to English style. She’s close enough already and now needs to concentrate on enlarging what she does, giving it more projection and, most important, spontaneity. A ballerina, and she shows promise of becoming one, should never look like a schoolgirl who has learned her lessons perfectly.


© 2006 Tobi Tobias

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