Sub­lime, but Not Sub­tle

Kid­die Col­ors De­tract From ABT’s ‘The Sleep­ing Beauty’

The Washington Post - - Arts - By Sarah Kauf­man

Why can’t a bal­let com­pany have bet­ter taste? Hasn’t bal­let been put on this Earth to teach us philistine­s about aes­thet­ics, about form, about art?

How, then, to ac­count for the bull­horn-loud, tod­dler-tai­lored pro­duc­tion of “The Sleep­ing Beauty” per­formed by Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre at the Kennedy Cen­ter on Tues­day?

One hates to be a crank, es­pe­cially when there was so much to ad­mire in that per­for­mance, chiefly the high level of danc­ing from the prin­ci­pals down through the ranks. Lav­ish hon­ors go to Paloma Her­rera as an un­com­monly re­fined and ten­der Princess Aurora and David Hall­berg as a heroic, un­man­nered Prince Désiré.

But what de­fines this pro­duc­tion, which pre­miered in June and has been staged by Artis­tic Di­rec­tor Kevin McKen­zie, for­mer ABT star Gelsey Kirk­land and her dancer hus­band, Michael Chernov, are the ri­otously over­cooked sets and cos­tumes. If you are 5, you will love them. So many sparkles! Such a lot of pink! Along with gum­drop green, pineap­ple yel­low and other fruitsalad hues, de­vised by Willa Kim and Holly Hynes, which could not be more out of tune with Tony Wal­ton’s beefy, blocky quasi-me­dieval decor.

One felt es­pe­cially for Vic­tor Bar­bee, in the char­ac­ter role of Aurora’s fa­ther, King Florestan, from whom the princess is to in­herit not only power but all the di­vinely en­dowed classical virtues that would have res­onated so deeply in the czarist Rus­sia of “Sleep­ing Beauty’s” birth back in 1890. A dancer-ac­tor of great econ­omy and mag­netism, Bar­bee trailed fluffy faux-er­mine and his sleeves dripped yards of lamé; when he strode across the stage, his dig­nity was bol­stered not a bit by the flashes of candy-ap­ple-red tights be­neath his robes.

True, we’re deal­ing with a fairy tale here, but must it be dressed up with such ju­ve­nile vi­su­als? The evil fairy Cara­bosse, who crashes Aurora’s chris­ten­ing to curse the in­fant, ar­rives in a blind­ing burst of light that shoots across the sto­ry­book sky; it feels very “Wicked,” very Dis­ney. Once the smoke clears (it takes a while) out steps the re­gal Mar­tine Van Hamel, once one of the com­pany’s most so­phis­ti­cated pri­mas; a pe­tite wo­man, she moves with a stage-com­mand­ing sweep. There is lit­tle need to glitz up her con­tri­bu­tion, and yet she sports a tow­er­ing bee­hive and ex­tremes of blue eye shadow even Tammy Faye Bakker would have es­chewed. The four hel­meted, spi­dery green-and-pur­ple min­ions who ac­com­pany her seem to have sprung from the campy do­main of “Doc­tor Who.” Weird as all the par­tic­i­pants were, I liked this dark group­ing, for the re­lief it of­fered from all the other cloy­ing candy col­ors.

One might ex­pect a bright, dis­tract­ing decor from a less able troupe strain­ing to over­come the tech­ni­cal de­mands of this bal­let, rightly con­sid­ered chore­og­ra­pher Mar­ius Petipa’s crown­ing glory and the pin­na­cle of 19th-cen­tury classical dance. But ABT’s over-freighted de­sign all but smoth­ers the ex­cel­lence of its per­form­ing. A sub­tler touch would have bet­ter suited the dancers, al­low­ing them to shape and build upon Petipa’s con­cept of or­der and har­mony — es­pe­cially when the cast is as strong as it was on open­ing night.

Her­rera stole the show. She has long been a prodi­giously gifted dancer, en­dowed with per­haps the most beau­ti­fully sup­ple feet in the busi­ness and a body, at once steely and pli­ant, to match. Yet for years she seemed to be frus­trat­ingly un­der-coached. She had lit­tle feel for uni­fied pro­jec­tion; her legs did won­der­ful things while her arms and up­per body sim­ply hung on for the ride. On Tues­day, how­ever, we saw a ma­ture bal­le­rina, one who took her time and who seems to have found her nat­u­ral cen­ter in this ex­cep­tion­ally de­mand­ing role.

Her­rera’s tech­nique, al­ways im­pres­sive, was in full bloom, with steadily rooted bal­ances in the fa­mous Rose Adage pas­sage with four suit­ors, and a silky, unas­sisted un- fold­ing into a soar­ing arabesque. But most strik­ing was the clean sculp­tural qual­ity of her por­trayal, the mod­esty of its pro­por­tion. She didn’t flaunt ex­tremes of flex­i­bil­ity, didn’t dis­tort the classical profile that this bal­let was cre­ated to show­case; she danced with a clear sense of dig­nity through­out, tinged with dewy youth in her first scene as a teenage in­genue, blos­som­ing into serene self-as­sur­ance at the bal­let’s close, when she is poised to be­come a queen.

Hall­berg matched her hand­ily. To his noble pro­por­tions and clean ex­e­cu­tion he added a ster­ling sen­si­tiv­ity; this was a poet prince, rather like the rest­less Siegfried in “Swan Lake.” He is not as com­plete a dancer as Her­rera yet, how­ever; when he zips off a se­ries of turns he tends to lose the stretch in his legs.

One hopes other cast mem­bers will take a page from Her­rera’s book. Misty Copeland’s Cat and Hee Seo’s Princess Florine went for ac­ro­batic, ear-graz­ing ex­ten­sions so in vogue nowa­days and so jar­ring in a classical work. They could also look to Veronika Part, whose mu­si­cal Lilac Fairy added grace notes to this pro­duc­tion.

There was no grace to be had for poor Cara­bosse, how­ever. As Prince Désiré storms the cas­tle to awaken the sleep­ing Aurora, one of the other “good” fairies hands him a sword, with which he guts the vil­lain­ess.

Mur­der, in “The Sleep­ing Beauty”? Yes — in this one. The more philo­soph­i­cal pro­duc­tions fea­ture a re­formed Cara­bosse in­vited to Aurora’s wed­ding at the end, duly sub­dued by good­ness. Not here. So much for the Prince’s sen­si­tiv­ity, for the smooth­ing over of ills with gen­eros­ity and char­ity, as the Lilac Fairy had done with Cara­bosse’s curse in the chris­ten­ing scene.

So much for beauty.


The clas­sic bal­let (with Zhong-Jing Fang) fea­tures cos­tumes and sets glar­ing enough to keep any princess awake.

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