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About the Change

American Ballet Theatre

‘The Sleeping Beauty’

June 2007
New York, Metropolitan Opera House

by Eric Taub

© Gene Schiavone

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Last night I was enchanted by ABT's The Sleeping Beauty. The sets and costumes were opulent but never garish. The Aurora danced every act with sinews of steel, and her Prince was the embodiment of classical grace. The Petipa choreography was burnished to a roseate glow, and by the apotheosis love and mercy had again triumphed over chaos, and all was right with the world. Then the videotape ended, jerking me away from those thirty-year-old images of Cynthia and Fernando, and ABT's long-lost Messel production. Instead, I had to face the reality of today's ABT, and the train-wreck of their new Beauty.

I'm daunted by the task of describing the monumental awfulness of this production. It's so utterly wrong-headed, so happily ignorant of The Sleeping Beauty's deeper meaning, and filled so copiously with staggeringly bad artistic choices that I scarcely know where to begin. Three million dollars sure buys an awful lot of stupid. Stupid ideas, stupidly executed, all speaking volumes of the utter contempt in which today's artistic directors hold their forebears.

The Sleeping Beauty is, in many ways, the beating heart of this fragile, hot-house flower of an art form. Three decades ago, Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith understood this, and mounted a reverent recreation of Sergeyev's Sadler's Wells staging, complete with Oliver Messel's gorgeous costumes and scenery. For Kevin McKenzie, The Sleeping Beauty, like The Nutcracker and Swan Lake before it, is just a problem to be solved, an stodgy anachronism all-too-deserving of any butchery necessary to gain the attention of today's attention-challenged audiences. That The Sleeping Beauty might contain a message about, say, the triumph of love and mercy over chaos, or even how the order and harmony of the revived kingdom is itself a reflection of the pure and codified forms of classical ballet, is of no importance whatsoever to McKenzie and his collaborators, Gelsey Kirkland and her husband, Michael Chernov. Of Petipa's story, the Rose Adagio and Grand Pas de Deux and bits of the Vision Scene survive, more or less, but stripped of their greater contexts they're driven down to the same level of on-stage special effects as the turbocharged dry ice machine, or the wires upon which unlucky dancers must fly. Perhaps in his next production McKenzie will use lasers to liven up those dull wasted moments when Aurora's not actually balancing forever or risking death in the fish dives.

Although the ABT team's narcissistic blindness to the values of the old Sleeping Beauty cheapens their every decision, there's nothing, in theory, wrong with trying to revamp a classic. The real problem is trying to revamp a classic, and doing a terrible job, which is what this team's done. McKenzie, Kirkland and Chernov have the chutzpah to rip apart this once-great ballet; ripping apart is easy. They clearly do not have the talent, vision or even basic dramatic competence (even though Chernov's contribution has been billed as that of a "dramaturge") to rebuild it into something even a tenth as coherent as what was destroyed, let alone into something better.

There's such a profusion of idiocies, such an embarrassment of embarrassments, that the story of Aurora herself gets lost in the grating static from one ridiculous dramatic "enhancement" after another. This Beauty can't decide what story it's trying to tell (even though it should be obvious from the title), because it wants to tell so many. The Prince gets much, much more stage time, and so does Carabosse, and so do the tireless Fairies and their attendant Knights (bet you didn't know there were knights in The Sleeping Beauty, did you?). It's like being stuck listening to someone tell a story who keeps losing the narrative while meandering into irrelevancies. By the time Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes came out for the Grand Pas in the third act, I thought, "oh, look, it's that girl again."

OK, Mr. Taub, thanks for the rant, but what about the ballet?

For the prologue, the curtain went up on an elaborate set for the kingdom's throne room, as designed by Tony Walton. For some reason, there's a big shower curtain covering much of the upstage wall; shouldn't every throne room have a shower curtain? The courtier's costumes, by Willa Kim, are gorgeous: sumptuous, brilliant combinations of deep blue, whites and silvers: pages with white tights, ladies with flowing double wimples, and the King (Victor Barbee) and Queen (Susan Jaffe) truly resplendent in acres of gilded fabric in designs reminiscent of those in the Duc du Barry's Book of Hours.

Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in The Sleeping Beauty
© Gene Schiavone

What with appearances by Barbee, Jaffe and Gelsey Kirkland (as Carabosse), it seemed a continuation of ABT's alumni reunion from the preceding weekend. I soon had cause to recall one famous alumna evident in spirit only, as the excruciatingly slow tempi could remind those of us of a certain age of nobody other than Natalia Makarova. I often found myself wondering idly just how much farther apart Africa and South America would be by the time I exited the theater.

As the fairies make their entrance, the shower curtain revealed its purpose. It would be too pedestrian for the fairies to merely walk onstage in a dignified procession, even though Tchaikovsky makes the moment special, and, when done right, it's like the arrival of the land of Faerie, en masse. No, let's guild the lily by having all the Fairies carried onstage in showy lifts by their cavaliers, I mean Knights. So, first we saw the various Fairies' heads and shoulders floating, in silhouette, against the curtain, which then opened to show them entering from a sunlit balcony. Each Fairy was carried in by a Knight, until we got to Lilac (Stella Abrera), who required two men to carry her in a sky-high fish position, as if she were already raining her benediction down upon the baby Aurora (in this production you'll often see a character's "signature" image echoed again and again, as if McKenzie were determined to get his money's worth out of each motif along with his beloved dry-ice machines).

Once the fairies alit, I was blinded by their extraordinarily tacky costumes. Peacock feathers abound like staring eyes, tinsel and sequins and glitter are everywhere, and too-bright, too-saturated colors of their tutus add to their look of dancing Christmas-tree ornaments. For their own part, the Knights wear what appear to be dragon-scale breastplates and dragon-wing capes. As neither Tchaikovsky nor Petipa actually made music or steps for these Knights, they're never more than superfluous annoyances throughout the ballet, popping up when McKenzie thinks we need to see them jumping and turning, and, otherwise, generally getting their asses kicked by Carabosse (come to think of it, they have a lot in common with Jedi knights, who spend six entire movies getting their asses kicked). I mean, if the knights could defeat Carabosse, it would be a pretty short ballet, wouldn't it? (Not that I would've complained.)

As the fairy solos began, the dreaded Makarova-Slow-Tempi which were to suck out what little air this silly production left in the Met asserted themselves. I'll never again complain about sluggish Royal Ballet tempi; ABT's were indeed slower than empires. The first Fairy, danced by Maria Ricetto, might as well have been the "Fairy Somnolente," so gradually did she progress across the stage. I thought the Fairies weren't supposed to put everyone asleep until after the prologue. As Fairies, they were a desultory bunch, although Sarah Lane gave her all to the songbird solo. Kristi Boone started out the Fairy Violente (finger-fairy) with gusto, but she soon lost her focus to the languid tempi which claimed the others. Apparently the tempi also claimed her pas de chats, which were nowhere to be seen. After Abrera's pretty yet wooden Lilac solo, the fun started with the arrival of Gelsey Kirkland's Carabosse.

You could tell something big's about to happen as the dry ice machines wooshed into noisy activity, and suddenly there's Kirkland in silhouette against the backlit fog, rising slowly like a malevolent toadstool from a hump-backed crouch. As in decades past, Kirkland's presence onstage belied her petite size. Her mime, uncanny in its directness and simplicity, recalled her dancing days, when even her slightest gesture might sear itself into your eyes as she pared every movement down to its purest, ineluctable form.

Would that Kirkland's conception of the role were as interesting as her execution of it. There was little cold or contained fury here, just repeated, explosive fits of self-indulgeng pique (that's actually a pretty good summary of this entire wretched production). Carabosse is most frightening when she's hardly moving at all, but Kirkland stomped and stamped around the stage with such tempestuous fury that she reminded me of Barbra Streisand having a mute hissy fit.

Carabosse was attended by some alarmingly over-costumed human flies, who sometimes skittered across the stage back-to-back like those repugnant revelers in Prodigal Son. The Kights spring forward to attack the flies and defend Aurora, but Carabosse ignored them, and I wish I could've, too. What a waste of good soloists like Sascha Radetsky and Gennady Saveliev! Kirkland's histrionics took her so far as to seat herself on the king's throne, scolding all the way. After she delivered Carabosse's curse on Aurora and Abrera's Lilac mitigated it with her own blessing, Kirkland vanished in an enormous burst of flash powder (someone must've offered McKenzie a good deal on flash powder, so prodigal is he with explosions), and it was on to the first act, where things began to go truly awry.

The first act began outside the gates of the garden in which Aurora's birthday party was about to take place. Some very silly girls in hideous yellow and green peasant costumes were playing together, as Kirkland's Carabosse slunk s-l-o-w-l-y toward them from the left of the stage, hunched over and pulling herself with her cane like a predatory snail. She presented them with a spindle, and skulked away as they play with the shiny, unfamiliar toy. Yes, in this production the "spinners" aren't risking death to do something productive like make clothing, as is usually the case in this scene; they're just clueless youngsters who are painfully ignorant of the import of their actions. Ah, isn't irony sweetest when it's unintentional?

Of course, the girls were found out, in a bit of overdone slapstick in which anyone who touches the spindle is seized by guards and condemned. As the King, Victor Barbee has to repeatedly shake his finger (to a trill of Tchaikovsky's which deserves better), like an angry lunchroom monitor or substitute teacher. The entire incident, Barbee clenching his jaw and staring into space as the Queen (Jaffe) and the various condemned beseech him for mercy on their knees, dragged on so slowly that I wanted to beg Barbee to set me free, too, but that wasn't to be. Finally, after an eternity of contemplation, he released the hapless girls just in time for the Garland Waltz.

Gelsey Kirkland as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty
© Merlin Hendy

In yet another of the ABT team's clever ideas, the Garland Waltz serves to introduce the four suitor princes in their absurd, eye-searing costumes, none worse than the poor Scottish prince in hideous green plaids trimmed with even-more-hideous fuschia feathers. The garland dancers arranged themselves to make a corridor, down which, one by one, each prince made his entrance, to be presented with a bunch of roses by a functionary. How clever! I've always wondered where those roses come from (not!); now I know. They're handed out like bar tickets at an swank Long Island wedding. I could almost hear the instructions: "Now hold onto your roses, you'll be needing to give them to the Princess when she arrives! Don't give both at once, either!"

And that arrival! For some reason, there's a bridge leading from the castle proper at the left of the stage (a very elaborate set, with balconies and turrets and more crenellations than I could count) towards a small pillar on the right circled by a ridiculously steep spiral staircase. As the music for Aurora's entrance built, her friends must one-by-one cross the bridge and with admirable, and hands-free, nonchalance, descend the stairs (which are so shallow it looks like each step has only room for a dancer's heel) without killing themselves. When it was time for Aurora to appear, she had to pose at the center of this Bridge to Nowhere, then trot down the Stairs of Death before she could launch into her perky opening solo. This kind of takes the wind out of the sails of her entrance, because already saw her cross the bridge and descend the stairs in advance of her "entrance" music, but who's counting?

After the disaster of Part's Rose Adagio at ABT's opening-night gala, I was worried she might again have trouble with the deadly balances. She played it very safe, though, and got through them with the least risk or flair possible. However, she flagged noticeably in Aurora's solos, and it's painfully noticeable when a big, tall dancer like Part starts dancing smaller and smaller. In one slow diagonal of piqué poses where she presents herself (and her beautiful front leg in attitude) to each prince, she seemed scarcely to cross the center of the stage at all, leaving two princes to acknowledge her attentions from across a yawning gulf. Although Part was quite an effective actress in La Bayadere, her Aurora seemed mired in a kind of saccharine cuteness right out of the Soviet era, at least when she wasn't disguising her shortness of breath with a grimace-like smile. Throughout all, though, Part's carriage of her shoulders and arms was gorgeous in the grand Vaganova style she's a perfect Lilac Fairy ill-served by this miscasting.

Kirkland returned and gives Aurora the deadly spindle, with the familiar result. However, at the point in the choreography where Aurora usually recoils from the gloating Carabosse, who stalks her across the stage, Part had to recoil from nothing, as Kirkland had already ascended to the middle of the Bridge to Nowhere, the better to enjoy the view, I suppose, and dominate the stage. Of course, this means that before she can deliver her mimed "I told you so!" soliloquy, Kirkland has to hobble c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y down those stairs. After some suitable diabolical laughter, she climbs back on the bridge and disappears in shock of flash powder so enormous it looked to have rocked Kirkland off her balance for a second ("Famous ex-ballerina injured in stage mishap read all about it!"), but fortunately she ducked behind the battlements before, I swear I'm not making this up, a firework like a shooting star burst across the stage, representing, I suppose, her fiery exit.

Abrera dutifully mimed the Lila Fairy's message of hope: that Aurora's not dead, but will sleep, etc., but what's this? The King and Queen don't get to nap like everyone else, but mean ol' Lilac kicked them out of the Garden, I mean the garden. I guess that's a catch to Aurora's survival that Lilac forgot to tell them in the prologue. So everyone else in the kingdom sleeps for a century or so, but the royalty must fend for itself with nothing but the jewels on their backs. So once again Jaffe sobbed inconsolably, and Barbee looked stoic, as vines devoured the castle.

After the single intermission, we were back in Kevin-McKenzie-land, where nature abhors a vacuum that doesn't contain men jumping and turning. As the curtain rose on the second act, the Prince, Marcelo Gomes, was having a lark with four of his manly buddies, manfully cleaving the country air with frolicsome jeté coupés and, as youth must be served, finishing up with a happy concordance of turns in second. They all rushed off in time for the arrival of the aristocratic hunting party, where, after a seemly pause, Gomes and his friends return on the Prince's proper entrance music. Once again McKenzie's ruined a character's entrance, as we'd just seen the Prince gamboling in the meadow with his cohort.

Now comes the one good idea McKenzie and team have, which they immediately beat into the ground. During the game of blind-man's buff, the blindfolded Prince had a vision, projected high above the backdrop, of Aurora's enchanted castle. This explains quite marvelously why the Prince is so rude to his fellow aristocrats. Usually he seems to be merely a sulking misogynist, but here he's been granted a glimpse of something better, so he's at least got a reason for looking beyond his shallow friends. Had this prequel Vision been left at that, it would've been a deft touch indeed, yet you might gather by now that leaving well enough alone isn't part of this team's intellectual mindset.

Soon, to the violin entr'acte originally intended for the long-gone Panorama, and played with lugubrious slowness, the backdrop's painted river covered the stage in a effluence of, you guessed it, dry ice, and, slowly, the Prince bent down to drink of the Enchanted Fog Machine. If only I'd known dry ice could be such a potent hallucinogen! My own vision was getting blurry from the oxygen being constantly sucked out of the Met, but I recall those hapless fairy Knights circling about an understandably befuddled Gomes in, of course, big leaps and turns, and then four subsidiary Fairies, with the songbird busily songbirding, similarly emboxing him, before flittering into the wings. Best of all was the Prince's glimpse Aurora, laid out on a bier in a swan-winged boat, drifting languidly through the downstage ripples of fog, as if to a Viking funeral. Somewhere in the midst of this slow-motion nonsense I found myself wishing someone might put me to sleep for a hundred years, but I was afraid I'd wake up and it'd still be the second act.

After coming to what passes for his senses, the Prince eventually freed himself from his entourage, only to find the corners of the stage blocked off by dryads arrayed in garlands of B-plus positions, and it was time for his second Vision of the day. Lilac appeaered, and after the usual "Why are you so sad?" and "Have I got a girl for you!" mimes, in came the vision of Aurora. But, remember, we'd already seen Aurora this act, so yet another entrance was ruined, and ruined even more because, instead of appearing as a vision, before stepping onto the stage, here Part simply bourrees in from the wings. Big whoop, as they say. In this Vision scene, the corps was far more aggressive about separating the Prince and Aurora and very obtrusive about arranging themselves into pretty, garland-like displays. I'm not familiar with the solo Part danced, but much was familiar, like the endless circling the pair did around the mulberry bush of dryads, before Gomes could finally hold Part. Here, they both danced with appropriate grace, although Part's tricky arabesque turns into pirouettes had their stiff moments.

Abrera then took Gomes on a journey up the creek in a paddle-less and, for a few depressing moments, motionless, enormous swan-boat. For a few seconds it appeared that no more than the bow would make it onstage, but after a few jerks it sailed majestically, freeing Gomes from any need to hop out and push. As the boat exited to the right, a large, shadowy, cobwebby curtain covered half of the front of the stage, and Kirkland reappeared, and, after using an invisible air-sickness bag, she produced invisible spiderwebs for her insectiod minions to create a trap for the Prince. Gomes entered, alone (I assume the Lilac Fairy was off powdering her nose), and became ensnared as the minions scooped him up, to much gleeful posturing by Kirkland who, no longer crouching, waved her cane about with great abandon, as if perhaps she really wanted to be Madge when she grew up. Gomes appeared spread-eagled against a spider web on a high platform, and Kirkland levitated skyward to menace him with her cane. Yes, Carabosse can fly. I guess those bitty fairy wings are good for something after all. Apparently her cane can double as a proboscis for exsanguinating her victims, and as she poked poor Gomes with it, his spotlight changed from white to red. Ewww. Then suddenly Lilac, having perhaps remembered that she shouldn't have sent the Prince alone into the spooky dark cave, stepped out from behind the web and attacked Carabosse, as, below, the various Fairies and their Knights drove off Carabosse's bug-men. At our last glimpse of Kirkland, she's spinning slowly clockwise while still floating in mid-air, doing a great impression of the dead floating astronaut from 2001. Ah, nostalgia.

Suddenly the lights went up, we're back in the garden, and Gomes is standing, to great applause, on the Bridge to Nowhere. For some reason Aurora's bed was now exposed to the elements, but nevermind. He marched across, kissed her, then everyone trotted down the Stairway of Doom, and Lilac blessed the couple's marriage. Oddly enough, Aurora seemed neither to notice or care that her parents were gone, but that's a teenager for you. A small group of courtiers appeared, magically transformed (by Lilac?) into magnificent Louis-XIV-era garb, golden coats and tonnelets for the men, dresses with enormous panniers for the women, all in golden fabric with stunning embroidered roses. After a procession before a drop curtain so that the stage crew can work their magic, it was on to Aurora's Wedding, or what passes for it in this sad production.

Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in The Sleeping Beauty
© Gene Schiavone

The drop curtain rose to show a beautiful ornate theatre, all blues and silvers and white, with a small stage upstage center. The sixteen newly accoutered courtiers entered to that wonderful polonaise, and I wonder, where's the kingdom? No King and Queen, no pages, no Catalabutte, no guards, no nobody, except these sixteen beautifully dressed folks prancing about in a contextual vacuum. This is order restored? Harmony? The triumph of good over evil? It's like all the fabric in the kingdom was used up on those sixteen magnificent costumes, so everyone else had to stay home. What a meager denouement for such an overdone story.

The upstage curtain rose, and one-by-one the various fairytale guests for the wedding entered: Puss in Boots and the White Cat, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and Cinderella looking for her shoe, and her Prince Charming. I soon realized that we wouldn't actually see any of these characters dance to their familiar music; all their dances had been cut, doubtless to make up for the time wasted on the Wet Vision Scene and the Cobweb of Doom. Instead we got some silly cartoonish mashups of all the characters, where Puss in Boots hit on Cinderella, and the flapping-toungued Wolf (complete with rhinestones on his tongue to represent drool!) was admonished by Prince Charming to present Little Red Riding Hood with a flower instead of eating her, an order which he, crestfallen, obeyed. This business wouldn't have been funny thirty years ago on Saturday-morning kiddie TV, and it's certainly not funny now, just embarrassing.

Then Xiomara Reyes arrived in a cage, and was released to dance an overly bubbly Bluebird pas de deux with Herman Cornejo, who's so beladen with blue feathers it's a wonder he can jump at all, but jump he does, and for the only time in the entire ballet there's some dancing which isn't stultified in the service of dubious technique or pedantic dramaturgy. Cornejo's the best Bluebird I've ever seen, with leaps that hang in the air and utterly soft, noiseless landings. The audience erupted in cheers, for the only real time in the ballet.

Then Abrera returned for a perfunctory solo, and it was time for Part (remember her?) and Gomes to deliver the Grand Pas de Deux, complete with tinselly, garish, spray-painted costumes. There were times when Part was gorgeous, but, as in the first act, there were times she seemed just barely holding herself together while squeaking through the trickier parts of her solos. At least the fish dives were impressive, a magnificent display of Part's long, flashing limbs and Gomes' strength. Stripped of its normal context of a celebration of harmony restored (has she still not noticed her parents are gone?), the pas de deux seems less a culmination than an appendage, with the real story perhaps still back in the second act, swirling in a whirlpool of dry ice and tinsel. Again, Part found little to express of Aurora's character beyond an occasional pert smile and toss of her head.

Then it was off to the races for the mazurka, and a very odd apotheosis. The Fairies and Knights returned, yet again, to pin capes on the happy couple, who paced towards downstage center, as Abrera returned with an oversized crown to hold over their heads (at first I thought it was Aurora's long-belated birthday cake). Two Knights lifted Abrera overhead, and then she, too, flew upwards on wires as the curtain slowly fell. By this time, all my benumbed mental facilities could accomplish was to wonder what sort of candies and toys might erupt if someone were to hit Abrera with a stick.

I haven't felt such relief leaving a ballet since I saw ABT stage the second act of McKenzie's Nutcracker at City Center years ago, when I was also tempted to kiss the pavement upon my escape.

I've heard this production, with Kim's wedding-cake costumes and Walton's prettified sets, described as a "Walt Disney" version of The Sleeping Beauty. Would that it were so. Disney would never have allowed a mess like this onstage. Look at all the recent successful and wonderful films Disney's made and then converted to stage hits. Unlike ABT's team, Disney knows how to tell a story. They understand pacing, respect their audience's intelligence, and don't fall so in love with bits of their own handiwork that they allow the parts to overwhelm the whole. This production would've been much, much better had ABT hired Disney to develop it for them. And let's not forget Disney's already had some success working with the Sleeping Beauty story.

Although McKenzie and NYCB's Peter Martins often seem to be in a competition to create the worst new production of a classic (it's a tossup whose Swan Lake is worse), Martins' Sleeping Beauty, despite many cuts and tightenings, never loses sight of the ballet's story and meaning (and it has Patricia Zipprodt's magnificent designs, too).

Once again we've been reminded that simply because an artistic director was a brilliant dancer, and is now a decent organizer and manager, it doesn't mean that he knows anything about being an artist, even with help.

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