writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Heart and Soul

The Sleeping Beauty
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
February 18, 29, 2004

by Mary Cargill
copyright 2004 by Mary Cargill

published 1 March 2004

If, as Walter Pater wrote, “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music”, then it seems that all Balanchine’s ballets aspire to the condition of The Sleeping Beauty, so it was fitting that the New York City Ballet performed it as the final offering of its Balanchine Heritage season. Peter Martins’ Beauty is not perfect, but it has many beautiful elements. However, it was set before the Kirov revived as much of the 1890 original as they could reconstruct. Their version, as close as this world will probably ever come to seeing the ballet that transfixed Balanchine, has a luxurious expansiveness, a rich variety, and a moral seriousness that later versions, however fine, lack.

The biggest revelation of the Petipa version was not the sets, though they were glorious. (The apotheosis, with its magnificent revolving ceiling, will always make other versions look skimpy.) The biggest difference was the role of Carabosse, who was not just a generic evil meanie to be destroyed, but the embodiment of the very human quality of a blind and rigid justice, demanding her rights and ignoring the pleas for mercy. The King, too, in an extended mime scene (dropped entirely by Martins), is torn between justice for the knitting ladies (beheading them immediately), and the pleas of the Queen and the court for mercy. Mercy wins, of course, and Aurora gets to dance her adagio in a world full of kindness and love, not just a world full of garlands and children. Carabosse, too, is forgiven at the end and comes to the wedding; evil is not vanquished forever in a make believe world. The original Beauty has a more nuanced and subtle outlook. It is not a titanic and superhuman struggle between good and evil, with the dancers as pretty diversions, but a very personal lesson in the need for mercy in this imperfect world.

Peter Martins’ version has none of this complexity; the truncated Prologue eliminates the fairies begging Carabosse’s pardon, there are no knitting ladies to forgive, and Carabosse disappears in a puff of smoke. It is as if someone decided to put on Parsifal with all the tedious little Grail bits left out; the heart, in the form of Aurora’s solos, is still there, but the soul is missing.

But a ballet can survive on heart alone, and Martins’ version is still beating strongly in his beautifully shaped vision scene, in Aurora’s dances, and in some of the performers. Jenifer Ringer, with Philip Neal (February 18), danced very well. She let the music carry her, without any unnecessary flourishes. Aurora is not really a character in a story ballet, she is exactly and only what the music expresses. The best Auroras dance with a warm and radiant impersonality, without any artifice.

Of course, it requires a solid, classical technique, centered and secure, with an easy and rounded carriage; this is a definition of Ringer, and she used her unobtrusively fine technique and expressive and beautiful face to great effect. The balances in the Rose Adagio were a bit fraught, but eventually triumphant. It is a shame that the hand above the head move has become canonical in the West—the more modest Russian version is, I think, more effectively integrated into the choreography and doesn’t bring the dancing to a screeching halt as the ballerina tries to hold onto her balance.

The limpid solo after the Rose Adagio was beautifully shaped, as was the vision scene. Ringer got the otherworldly, but not cold, quality the scene requires; her soul was calling out to her Prince, not her heart. Her body spoke but her eyes did not. They were not dead, they just couldn’t see earthly things. Neal was gracious and ardent. One of the many beauties of Martins’ vision scene is that he doesn’t make the Prince dance—it is not his world and he can’t be part of it. Désiré’s joyful little solo after the vision disappears in a fine compromise between the elegant heeled boots of old and the current insistence that movement is everything. Ringer’s final pas de deux could have used a bit more grandeur—she is essentially a lyrical dancer—but it was beautifully shaped.

Alexandra Ansanelli, who danced with Nilas Martins (February 29), is not a lyrical dancer, and, with her lean body, lack of turn out, and lax but expansive upper body, she is not really a traditional classical dancer either. Possibly to make up for this, or possibly through inexperience, she tended to overact. She peeked out of the backdrop on her first entrance, batting her eyes, as though she were about to break into a vaudeville rendition of “You are My Sunshine”. She had some trouble in the Rose Adagio, and ignored the fourth cavalier the first go round, presumably to preserve her balance, but this breach of palace etiquette defeats the mood of the scene. Parts of her dancing were lovely, and she clearly has worked very hard, but again, possibly due to inexperience, she needs to put the parts into a cohesive whole and not go for flashy effects—over held balances and over rotated turns distort the choreography, especially if the dancer can’t finish without wobbling. The final act, possibly due to problems with pacing, was a bit perfunctory and underpowered; waiters have been summoned with more passion than she put into the sublime “My heart is yours” gesture.

The Sleeping Beauty is more than Aurora and Désiré, and the supporting casts, with some exceptions, looked a bit skimpy. The Prologue fairies were, by and large, very young corps members (in the glory days of the Royal Ballet, these were often principal roles). The impossibly fast music didn’t help, nor the practice of have one fairy come on before her predecessor finished. It looked a bit like stray chickens being shooed away. Rachel Rutherford, Dena Abergel (who was also a very fine Queen, pleading eloquently with Carabosse), and Carla Korbes were luxurious exceptions. Now if only the ballet could get back its soul!

Photos (all by Paul Kolnik):
First: Alexandra Ansanelli with Arch Higgins in the Rose Adagio of Peter Martins' production of The Sleeping Beauty.
Second: Alexandra Ansanelli and Nilas Martins in the third act pas de deux.

Reviews of other Winter Season performances:

Some thoughts on Balanchine, with references to Arlene Croce (Gay Morris)
Prodigals, Gods, and Music: "Heritage" Week 1 at New York City Ballet (Susan Reiter)
Harlequinade (Nancy Dalva)
Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2/Harlequinade (Mary Cargill)
Double Feature (Mary Cargill)
The Show Goes On: Donizetti Variations/Scotch Symphony/Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 (Mary Cargill)
Designs that Pack a Punch:  Jewels (Susan Reiter)

Swanilda's World (Mary Cargill)
New Casts in Jewels (Mary Cargill)
A Valiant Beauty (Mindy Aloff)
A Veteran and a Debutante (Mindy Aloff)

Also Mindy Aloff's Letters related to the Balanchine Celebration:

Letter 14 (Balanchine Celebration; Times Talk)
Letter 15 (Midsummer Night's Dream)
Letter 16 (Double Feature)
Letter 17 (Barefoot Balanchine at Sarah Lawrence)

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 9
March 1, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mary Cargill



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last updated on January 11, 2004