Changing the Guard in Martins’ "Sleeping Beauty"

New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
January 10, 2007

by Michael Popkin
copyright 2006 by Michael Popkin

New York City Ballet opened its winter season with a two week run of Peter Martins’ “The Sleeping Beauty” and used the second week to introduce two new casts to the ballet. On Wednesday night the first new cast appeared, with Megan Fairchild, Joaquin De Luz and Ellen Bar making debuts as Princess Aurora, Prince Desire and the Lilac Fairy, respectively, with Maria Kowroski as the evil fairy Carabosse. Fairchild and De Luz have been principal dancers for about a year and half now and Bar was promoted to soloist last spring. Considering the number of debuts and the youth of the dancers the performance was remarkably crisp and well rehearsed. Not surprisingly, however, it was also cautious at times — caution seeming to be the price of the technical precision we saw from so young a cast in such a demanding ballet.

As Princess Aurora, Megan Fairchild executed the choreography perfectly and showed no nerves. Her phrasing was extraordinarily clear and all three of her scenes went off without a hitch. This was a fine achievement in one of the most demanding roles in the entire classical repertory. Her dramatic interpretation was more problematic on the other hand. She isn’t a princess in her physical type. “Cute” rather than “beautiful,” she’s more of a natural in “Coppelia” than in “Sleeping Beauty” and her dancing style is also precise, upright and on the beat rather than lyrical, expansive and musically interpretive. Ideally one would like to see a little more glamour in this role as Beauty is a ballet that benefits from a high level of dramatic excitement in Aurora’s big moments.

De Luz was promoted to principal dancer at the same time as Fairchild and is her designated partner in nearly everything she dances; and much of what was said above about her suitability for the role can also be said of him. He executed the choreography superbly and in fact projected considerably more kinetic excitement than she did. (Although that’s also a problem for the production, as the Prince should not make more of an impression than the Princess in this ballet). Like her, however, he’s small in stature. And he’s no more a Prince by physical type, dance style or temperament than she is a Princess. His initial entrance to fanfares of horns during the hunt party was a disappointment from this point of view because you couldn’t tell who he was supposed to be. The moment should be somewhat grand. But even knowing that De Luz was cast and what was about to happen, I didn’t know that the Prince had entered the scene: it looked like two other courtiers joining the party. This is the kind of thing that can perhaps be made better through the blocking of the scene and timing of his entrance.

Ellen Bar’s casting as the Lilac Fairy, on the other hand, was perfect and her performance was an unqualified success. She’s very tall and has the expressive arms and hands you want in this role. Her mime was clear and the execution of her solos was exquisite, but above all she held the stage and colored the entire performance with a most beautiful expression. The Lilac Fairy is the force of Good that presides over the action in Beauty, governing the fairy realm just as the King and Queen do the mundane one and intervening in the latter to save the day, and that was just how Bar appeared. Her stage presence was strong enough to effect this and it was a revelation to see her doing this  instead of the “hard sell” allegro roles she’s usually been cast in over the years. Her lyricism carried the evening.

In this connection, watching Bar mime her role so clearly on Wednesday made me realize not only how lyrical she was, but how musical and appealing the mime are in this production in general. There is, in fact, a great deal of mime Martins’ "Beauty," not only for the Lilac Fairy but also for Carabosse, the King and the Queen, Aurora and her Prince and it’s one of the most appealing things in the ballet. It brought me up with a start to realize that Peter Martins, coming from Copenhagen, is a product of the only great remaining school of ballet pantomime. Milan, Paris and Copenhagen were once the centers of a great tradition in this respect but only in Denmark is it kept alive to some degree and this is Martins’ pedigree. Among the many works he has choreographed, "Beauty" is unique in showing that Martins was born and bred in that school and the thought of it made me slightly more hopeful about the new production of “Romeo and Juliet” he is working on for the spring.

Kowroski’s Carabosse toned down the more melodramatic aspects of the character. You knew what she was up to, her intentions and actions were clear, but her evil fairy was not malignant or overacted.  It was fairy tale Evil, not too scary and easily overcome by Good. In addition to being a star ballerina, she’s a gifted character dancer.

The Fairy Variations in the Act I and II divertissements were crisply and cleanly danced and the corps de ballet throughout was most impressive. The Act I fairies were Maya Collins, Ana Sophia Scheller, Rebecca Krohn, Stephanie Zungre and Melissa Barak. These variations are generally, however, harsh and graceless as choreography.

Something subtle is happening here as a whole. The steps used in all the variations later find their way into Aurora's choreography for the Rose Adagio, the fairies are bearing gifts to Aurora and she in the end receives them. To give just one example, the retiring emboitee steps danced by the Fairy of Generosity reoccur in the petit allegro passage for Aurora that immediately follows her grand promenade and balances in attitude at the height of the Rose Adagio. It's an interesting structural idea. But the fact that Martins had to realize it on music for fairy variations that was composed to a different scenario forced him into some awkward choreographic choices.

Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht must be mentioned for strong performances as Princess Florine and the Bluebird. At first glance they were an odd cast for this: she’s much taller than he is, and he’s so compact in stature and developed in muscle below the waist that you can’t expect to see a brisée line anywhere. But he made up for these limitations with great elevation and unexpectedly delicate articulation in his hands and feet; and she was  amazingly clean, classical and dramatic in her variations. They brought a welcome moment of excitement to the performance.

The Act II Jewels were Seth Orza (Gold), Savannah Lowery (Diamond), Lauren King (Emerald) and Alina Dronova (Ruby). All danced well and I was surprised by how well Lowery turns for so tall a woman.  Also in this Act (as every writer who has seen her has mentioned) Hideka Hanafusa – the Asian child performing Little Red Riding Hood – stole the show, she’s the best we are ever going to see in this. Rachel Piskin and Amar Ramsasar were charming as the White Cat and Puss in Boots and the three pyrotechnical jesters were Adam Hendrickson, Aaron Severini, and Giovanni Villalobos.

Volume 5, No. 3
January 15, 2007

copyright ©2007 Michael Popkin

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