San Francisco Ballet
The Sleeping Beauty
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
26 January 2018
As a preface to the following, I have to say that it gives me no pleasure to hand out a two-star review, and I do so with the utmost regret. Ballet artists, from dancers to costume-builders to stagehands, work extremely hard and dedicate their lives to their work, but the efforts of San Francisco Ballet’s artists are sadly misplaced in its largely joyless and wholly unsatisfying rendition of The Sleeping Beauty.
The full-length production, choreographed in 1990 by SFB artistic director and principal choreographer Helgi Tomasson after Marius Petipa’s 1890 original, opened the company’s 85th repertory season on Tuesday, 23 January; I saw the Friday, 26 January performance, starring principal dancers Maria Kochetkova as Aurora and Carlo Di Lanno as Prince Desiré. The problems with this Beauty are foundational, in production and staging that fatally wound the ballet in narrative and spirit.
It’s easy to underestimate Beauty, if assume that it’s as vaporous as pixie dust. The first ballet-feérie, it is a fantasy of Baroque France based on myriad fairytales and set in a domain ruled by kings, queens and fairies both good and evil. But Beauty has bedrock. It is a Gesamtkunstwerk that brings together music, dancing, storytelling and spectacle to tap into longing, mortality, love and the transporting effect that sheer loveliness has on the human soul.
Beauty is disarmingly absurd and avant-garde in a certain way, defined as much by Mariinsky director Ivan Vsevolozhky’s decision to insert Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf and Hop o’ My Thumb into the Act III wedding as it is by virtuosic classical dancing, magical stagecraft and Tchaikovsky’s extraordinary score. The score is a fantasia in its own right, stirringly lovely and rich in character and foreshadowing, but also representing an intellectual leap forward for ballet music. It confused and frustrated the 1890 dancers with its symphonic style and the boldness with which it claimed parity with every other element of the production.
In making Beauty his own, Tomasson relocated the Prologue and Act I from courtly 17th-century France, with its refined decorative arts, elegant clothing and frivolity, to the 17th-century Russian court, which was still Byzantine in style; Acts II and III follow Peter’s reign, when he determinedly imported French style to the Imperial court. This revision adds nothing to the plot and in fact detracts from it.
Sets and costumes designed by the late Jens-Jacob Worsaaeare, and recently reconstructed by the Royal Danish Ballet, are absolutely opulent, but they bury the dancers under oppressive, formless swathes of puce velvet. The design casts a spirit-dampening pall over the palace long before Carabosse arrives, making it feel as gloomy and portentous as the Capulets’ foreboding ball. (Worsaae also designed Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet at SFB in 1994, and the similarities in palette, fabrics and effect are unfortunate.)
Visually, two dozen dancers draped in heavy, monochrome fabric become a flat plane that moves from one side of the stage to the other; the only discernible individuals – you barely even tell men from women – are the Tsar and Tsarina (Jim Sohm and Katita Waldo), thanks to their elaborate crowns. The golden palace, with its carpeted walls, may also be period-accurate, but it sets the stage for Raymonda, not for Aurora.
One-dimensional costuming drags the entire ballet down. Rather than festive and bursting with spirit, the Prologue fairies look wan in tutus that range from beige to brown. In comparison, the Lilac Fairy (Sarah Van Patten) seems almost garish in a color as translucent as lavender tea. It’s just a shame to lose out on the eye-candy delight of Beauty, which also sets a joyful mood and shows the audience what is at stake, what might be lost to the forces of evil. Setting the first half of the ballet in the Byzantine reframes Carabosse’s curse as a transition to the Enlightenment.
The drabness recolors the characters as well. The incompetently officious Catalabutte (wonderful actor Val Caniparoli, sadly underplayed) blurs into the crowd; giving him the painfully generic name “Master of Ceremonies” doesn’t help. Catalabutte is supposed to set the entire plot into motion by offending the evil fairy Carabosse (a not-at-all scary Jennifer Stahl), but when Carabosse singles him out, we still don’t know who he is because he hasn’t been established; we get the punch line but not the setup.
SFB last performed the ballet in 2008, which means that a whole generation of dancers has had little to no practice with it, unless they dance it elsewhere before joining or have guested in it, as Kochetkova did at the Mikhailovsky in 2009. Larisa Lezhnina and Lola de Avila coached the dancers, but outside of a select few, Friday’s cast was technically overmatched.
In her San Francisco debut as Aurora, Kochetkova (in a burnt-orange tutu!) seemed nervous – who wouldn’t be, but it’s so unusual for her. Her beautiful lines enhanced a slightly shaky Rose Adagio, and after that she settled in. With her petite features and skillful acting, she segues easily from the carefree innocence of Aurora, the wistfulness of the Vision and the nobility of the wedding. Her variations are nonpareil, and Beauty’s solos showcase her gorgeous command and attention to detail. The littlest things make you catch your breath, like her control as she lowers her leg from arabesque through failli, her evolving musicality as melodies change from one solo instrument to another, and her piquant hops on pointe.
Di Lanno is a tall and elegant cavalier, with pliant jumps and turns trained at La Scala. He’s more brooding than boyish, and while his Desiré offered bounding coupe jetés, multiple pirouettes and soul-searching in spades, it wasn’t clear whether being united with Aurora was the happy ending he had long awaited.
Fairies struggled across the board, including Van Patten’s unsteady Lilac if corps dancer Wona Park brought the most precision and spark as The Fairy of Courage/Violante. Madison Keesler, back here after several years with English National Ballet, was radiant as the Sapphire Fairy in Act III. (More costume trouble: With binoculars you could see that the Jewels’ beige tutus were encrusted with gems, but the detail was so understated that from any distance it faded away.) Lonnie Weeks was a knockout as one of the Jewels’ cavaliers, full of ballon, clean lines and infectious energy.
Elizabeth Powell charmed the Opera House with her White Cat, which received some of the night’s loudest applause. Where was that fun, quirky aplomb elsewhere in the production? The audience would have eaten it up. Soloist James Sofranko was a worthy foil as Puss in Boots, and he rose above his pink-airbrushed tiger-striped costume. Other than the Bluebird pas de deux, Tomasson excised the other storybook characters, and more’s the pity.
Soloist Esteban Hernandez and corps member Natasha Sheehan (women’s winner of the 2016 Erik Bruhn Prize) debuted as Bluebird and the Enchanted Princess. (By the way, in real fairytale life the princess wasn’t enchanted, nor was she a bird, but that’s a different gripe for a different day.) Both are very talented young dancers on the rise; they performed well and imbued the pas de deux with effervescence, but to master this merciless choreography Sheehan needs more gestural clarity, while Hernandez wants more attack in the brisés and greater extension in the jumps.
In today’s era of contemporary ballet, in which SFB is a world leader, it’s brave for any company to take on The Sleeping Beauty, which lays bare everything a company has to offer: technique, acting skill, storytelling, conceptual vision. Once every ten years is not enough; it feels unfair to the dancers, who deserve the ample time and ongoing practice to hone the technical aspects and build confidence in their classical interpretations. This time around, it revealed things about SFB that I hope will evolve.