ABT’s new Alexei Ratmansky Sleeping Beauty, which had its New York premier Friday, is a grand production with spectacular costumes and sets. No expense was spared in this production, underwritten by a $2.5 million matching grant from David Koch, with sets and costumes by Tony-award winning designer Richard Hudson, prominent for design work in The Lion King. However, what sets this production apart is that Ratmansky doesn’t attempt a makeover of the popular classic, but returns to it’s Russian roots.
Ratmansky’s inspiration is Serge Diaghilev’s 1921 staging of the Imperial Russian Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty, first choreographed in 1890 by Marius Petipa to the music of Tchaikovsky. Ratmansky made heavy use of notations housed in the Harvard Theatre Collection from Nicolas Sergeyev, who restaged Petipa’s choreography for Diaghilev.
Ratmansky’s story is not only true to the original, but also the style of dancing from the 1920s. In Ratmansky’s version, dancers replicate the technique of the era. Dance technique has evolved over the years and, like watching video of 1950s basketball players that have an aversion to jumping, employing feet on the ground set shots and crab like defensive postures, what was standard then looks strange now.
Chaine turns: the most obvious difference is in chaine turns for women. The turns are a rapid short series of turns done on pointe. However, back then, women did them on demi pointe.
Pirouettes: currently, the typical preparation for a pirouette is from fourth position up to a passe position with the working foot touching the knee. Technique then for a pirouette position was very low passe just above the ankle, taken off from second position.
Low extensions for women: currently it is common to see women push their extension, sometimes compromising technique as their leg is next to their head. Back then, extensions were low, generally below 90 degrees. As Poison Ivy notes, Ratmansky gives direction to the ABT dancers that they shouldn’t show their underwear to the Czar.
Simple steps: steps considered simple today are commonplace in the performance. For example, single supported pirouettes for women.
Petit allegro focus: Prince Désiré’s solo is filled with small beat steps (petit allegro). No grand bravura split jumps and turns common today. In the Prince’s second solo in the Grand Pas de Deux, he doesn’t do much, consisting of a simple mazurka step.
Low carriage of arms on turns: Dancers currently turn with arms in front of their chest. Back then, technique called for lower arms hovering around the stomach.
Coupe grande jete: a recurring step in the performance is a coupe grande jete. The dancer does a complete turn on the ground, like a soutenu turn before starting the grand jete. Currently dancers start the grande jete before completing the turn.
I learned a lot about early ballet technique from the production.
The costumes are grand, particularly the King and Queen in the Wedding Scene. The Queen enters with a gorgeous white and gold gown with long tail (attendants need to work on not stepping on the tail). Wigs are prominent throughout; the Queen wears a tall, thin wig, probably 2-3 feet tall. Prince Désiré and Aurora wear white powdered wigs in the Grand Pas de Deux.
Marina Harss of The New York Times has a nice profile of designer Richard Hudson and the challenges of designing the costumes after Léon Bakst, a Russian avant-gardist with art nouveau tendencies. In the hunting scene in Act II, Prince Désiré was in a red jacket and Napoleon-type bicorne hat, resembling an Admiral in The Royal Navy. His attire in the wedding scene was a cream-colored frilly shirt with breeches over tights with a white powdered wig, something that Alexander Hamilton would wear to a party. Carabosse, the Evil Fairy was attired in a black and silver dress with long fingers, long silver hair, and grotesque nose and chin.
An interesting aspect of Hudson’s work is that Hudson says that he avoids using computers for the sets and costumes, instead designing models by hand. It’s a huge project with 300-400 individually tailored costumes. Here is an interview with Hudson, who looks and sounds like he was talking in a cave.
Dancers will love the production as there are many dances and solos. There are at least a dozen dancers that have solos, in addition to many dramatic roles. I agree with Poison Ivy, the production looks like it is from a real ballet company rather than a collection of guest artists, with numerous Corps members active along with young dancers from ABT’s JKO School, particularly in the Garland Waltz.
Aurora and The Prince were played by Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes on Friday and Joseph Gorak and Isabella Boylston on Saturday evening. Both casts were effective. Gillian and Isabella navigated the treacherous Rosa Adagio in Act I. Isabella looked very relieved when her last balance was completed with a triumphant smile after she passed the tough test. Marcelo and Joseph acted the prince role well, although Joseph looked bored in Act II. Many of the solos from the women are straightforward technically and most were done well. An exception is the solo for The Lilac Fairy in Act I is tricky, with multiple turn sections. Stella Abrera and Christine Shevchenko danced clean versions. The role of The Lilac Fairy after Act I is largely dramatic.
The performance looked very well rehearsed without any major issues. The production premiered in March at Segerstom Center in California and any kinks that might have come up were worked out.
Several performances stood out: Daniil Simkin’s Bluebird variation was the best I have seen. He had nicely articulated and wide beats on his assembles, nice split jumps after his first pass of his solo, a quick brisé volé diagonal on his second solo, and nice 1920s style turns from low passe. The end of his first solo was unusual by today’s standards, a landing in fifth position on a double tour rather than to the knee. A very good performance from Daniil.
I also enjoyed Keith Roberts as Catalabutte, the King’s Chief Minster. This is a minor role, but Keith was very expressive and outgoing as he tended to the King. I hope to see more of Keith in dramatic roles. He is a former ABT Principal Dancer and now a ballet master. Taking a break from Prince duty, Marcelo was Carabosse, the evil fairy Saturday evening. He was outstanding, playing the old, rickety witch. His pantomime was transparent, effectively communicating as if he was speaking about her evil plans. The Orge and Orress were funny as they chased young kids. The Orge, with massive head, had a baby attached to his hip, with other babies coming out of his outsized boots. Like other Sleeping Beauty productions, I find Red Riding Hood and the White Cat dull.
ABT has a true winner on its hands with Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty. Like most Ratmansky full length ballets, there is much action and nuance, which reward multiple viewings. It is refreshing that he went back to the 1920s for inspiration, rather than adding to the many modern Sleeping Beauty versions. A new interpretation would be boring; his creative instinct to look backward rather than forward was brilliant.
Note to parents: the version is not that child friendly as there are slow parts in the three-hour production.