"The Sleeping Beauty":
classical beauty finally rules in Flanders
“The Sleeping Beauty"
(choreography by Marcia Haydée after Marius Petipa)
Royal Ballet of Flanders
June 16, 2006
by Marc Haegeman
copyright ©2006, Marc Haegeman
When last December the Royal Ballet of Flanders added William Forythe’s “Impressing the Czar” to its repertory one Dutch newspaper critic observed a little rashly that artistic director Kathryn Bennetts had “suddenly revitalized this company, which generally limits itself to the usual 'Sleeping Beauties'”. Even considered within the prevailing climate in these regions to look down on anything which even faintly smells of traditional ballet and to deem the revival of not-so-new Forsythe as beneficial for the future of a classical troupe, such a statement proves as incorrect as it is insulting. In previous seasons the company has always spent a great deal of attention to contemporary work to balance its programming. Furthermore, now that Bennetts has revealed her final trump card of her first season with Flanders — Marcia Haydée’s spectacular staging of “The Sleeping Beauty” — these words have become truly nonsensical.
To be sure, it isn’t the first time the Royal Ballet of Flanders has turned to “The Sleeping Beauty”. However, the production mounted by previous director Robert Denvers in 1999, rather clumsily based on Rudolf Nureyev’s staging, was about everything this ballet shouldn’t be and quickly disappeared without further regret. What distinguishes the current effort from the old one, though, is not only the scale, the means, and the overall quality of the production (it is after all the grandest production Flanders ever staged). Where Bennetts really has made her point, is that she invigorated her dancers precisely by challenging them with one of these derided classics, even succeeding in making them look better than ever — and eventually answering in the most convincingly positive way the ad nauseam repeated question whether it still makes sense to perform these “romantic” ballets. This is how a great classic deserves to be treated. It’s not an old-fashioned and dusty museum piece, it still inspires today’s artists as well as audiences (an extra performance had to be programmed in this all too short run), and what’s more, it takes an academically schooled company like the Royal Ballet of Flanders — the only one left in Belgium — to dance it. If Bennetts hadn’t done anything else this season, she still would have deserved a medal.
Haydée’s production, initially staged for Stuttgart Ballet in 1987, follows Marius Petipa in broad lines. She herself learned the ballet from Bronislava Nijinska in her days with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas. All the traditional choreographic highlights are there, including the solos for Désiré in the 2nd Act. The story is told straightforwardly and swiftly, most of the mime scenes are dropped except for a few crucial ones like the Lilac Fairy’s intervention that Aurora will sleep instead of die (occurring here at the end of the 1st Act, after she pricked her finger). The staging raises some slight quibbles (why let the nobles dance a peasants ‘farandole’ in Act 2, if Tchaikovsky wrote four dances especially for them? etc) and as nearly every version of “Beauty” it does have its idiosyncrasies. In this case it’s Haydée’s significant development of Carabosse’s part, dramatically and choreographically, balancing the Lilac Fairy’s. The ballet is seen as a continuous struggle between good and evil of which the outcome isn’t exactly clear when the final curtain falls. Albeit danced by a man — originally created on Richard Cragun — Carabosse has a very androgynous look, with hints of Kabuki theatre. There may be too much of her (not always making sense, as in the Vision scene, when the Prince is on his own and the music of the Lilac Fairy is heard, yet it is Carabosse whom we see observing him from a distance) and her way of moving is at times deliberately off style, but when performed as energetically it was here by principal Alain Honorez, it does give the production enormous theatrical vitality. Haydée devised some spectacular moments for Carabosse as in the interpolated scene following the prologue where she reveals the child princess guarded by the Lilac Fairy by elegantly manipulating the black curtain. Even during the apotheosis the wicked fairy reappears and although Lilac restores everything to order one more time, the story ends with Carabosse triumphantly standing in front of the curtain.
The designers of this “Beauty” did a magnificent job, avoiding the production from ever looking shoddy or drab. Chilean Pablo Nu?ez created the handsome 17th and 18th century-style costumes and sets, tasteful and simply efficient — each Act adding something to the same basic framework — without overlooking the fairytale element and court opulence required by the subject. (Time goes quickly, though, with the Louis XIV prologue already jumping to the Louis XV Act I, but no matter.) Lighting design, also by Nu?ez and Haydée, was appropriately evocative, especially in the scenes of Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy, with ravishing floor patterns adding to the magic of the moment. The idea of the growing roses, a recurrent feature in the ballet, was a fine one. Each Prologue fairy enters preceded by a page carrying a rose offered to the baby princess and roses could be seen multiplying with each Act. It was, of course, also a bouquet of roses that Carabosse used to trick Aurora.
Company dancing was remarkably good overall at the premiere in the Concertgebouw in Bruges. Obviously well coached and rehearsed by Haydée and her team, I can’t remember seeing the dancers in such glowing form on an opening night. Firmly believing in what they were doing, they seemed bent on investing every step with the proper meaning, and enjoyed every single moment doing so. Leading roles were especially fine: Aki Saito, petite and light, was a radiant Aurora, her dancing harmonious, precise and musical, leaving us unaware of the technical difficulties of the role. The always superb Wim Vanlessen was her prince, outstanding by his impeccable technique and attractive persona. His variation in the Grand Pas was a marvel of execution, ease and polish, ending it all in a tight fifth position. Geneviève Van Quaquebeke possessed all the command and grandeur for the Lilac Fairy, and danced strongly throughout. Supporting casts looked excellent — for a 56-strong troupe, a full-scale “Sleeping Beauty” is a formidable assignment, but unlike in the previous version no signs of overstretch were to be found. The occasional stiffness of some dancers will surely be ironed out by further performances. Pupils of the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp eagerly participated in the ensemble.
The choice of Haydée’s version of “Beauty” was a sound one for Flanders. The company lacks the means and manpower to give credit to the multilayered complexity of the ballet as we saw it in the Mariinsky reconstruction. Yet with this version it now possesses a first-rate and agreeable production of this magnificent classic which can serve with time as a true company’s calling-card. The ballet will be revived next season.
Finally, and thanks to Kathryn Bennetts as well, the Royal Ballet of Flanders, starting this season, again performs to live music. The days of those fearful sounding tapes are happily over. The presence in the pit of the excellent deFilharmonie, one of the foremost symphony orchestras in the country, conducted by Brett Morris, gave full credit to Tchaikovsky and was the jewel in the crown of an outstanding achievement.
Volume 4, No. 25
June 26, 2006
copyright ©2006 Marc Haegeman