Wednesday, June 21, 2006
It must have been a pleasure, on that February evening in 1946, to watch a ballet in postwar London without nervous glances at the little red light that told audiences an air raid was in progress. Not that, during the raids, the hard-core ballet lovers ever left. If the dancers kept dancing, why should the audience leave?
Not quite a year after the war's end, much of the city was in ruins and ballet must have seemed a strange priority. Men to play princes and cavaliers were scarce. In the Covent Garden opera house, which had been used as a dance hall through the war, there were still signs proscribing anyone from doing the jitterbug (American servicemen were not inclined to obey). And the ballet company chosen to reopen the opera house, known then as the Sadler's Wells Ballet, was still in its infancy.
Yet it managed to dance one of the greatest and most challenging of the classical works, the Tchaikovsky-Petipa "Sleeping Beauty," the story of a princess sent into a long sleep by an evil fairy, then reawakened by the kiss of a prince. Things were still grim in London, but for those who were there that evening, it seemed certain that English cultural life would survive.
Clement Crisp, now the dance critic of the Financial Times of London, was a schoolboy at the time, and he was there for the opening of the new "Sleeping Beauty." It was a production that would, in many ways, transform the Sadler's Wells dancers into the company we know today, the Royal Ballet -- which begins a run of five performances of "Sleeping Beauty" at the Kennedy Center tomorrow evening. Crisp remembers the effect was wondrous, and the audience ecstatic.
"The war was over," he says from London. "We had been bombed for four years, and suddenly there was peace, and no blackout. One of the funny things was that the theater smelled very strongly of mothballs. They had all got out their dinner jackets from storage."
The 1946 production stayed in the repertoire for decades and for many it defined the style and glamour of the company, which received its "Royal" title in 1956. "Sleeping Beauty" went to New York in 1949, with Margot Fonteyn, and the response was rapturous. And the company has tried, over the years since the production was retired in the late 1960s, to recapture its magic.
That hasn't been easy. The two most recent attempts, one by Anthony Dowell that premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1994 ("ugly sets" was the verdict in London), and another by Natalia Makarova unveiled in 2003 ("a limp Soviet knockoff," wrote one observer), failed to live up to expectations. In 1970, shortly after the old production, with its buoyantly colorful sets by Oliver Messel, had been scrapped, the great American dance critic Arlene Croce shredded a new Royal Ballet "Sleeping Beauty" she saw in New York: "All these years asleep and 'Beauty' wakes up bonkers," she wrote in Ballet Review. Curiously, the ballet that made the company's reputation has been a bit of a curse ever since.
"I think one couldn't possibly approach the 'Sleeping Beauty' without a little nervousness and anxiousness," says Monica Mason, the company's director. Sitting in the garishly faux-baroque splendor of Boston's Wang Center, a cavernous theater where her company was performing last week, Mason has a soft, reassuring presence.
"There have been so many productions, and because the productions cost a great deal of money, you don't like to think you're wasting it, and you don't like to waste the dancers' time," she says.
Mason, who has maintained a ballerina's long and lean look into silver-haired maturity, took over as head of the Royal Ballet in 2002, following a brief and stormy tenure by Ross Stretton (he had some radical ideas about change and he was an outsider, and an Australian, no less). Mason has been with the company for decades, and she has declared herself a keeper of tradition, all of which has soothed nerves as the company celebrates its 75th anniversary this season.
"I don't think that I would particularly feel the need for there to be change," she says. Like many inside the company, when she refers to the Royal Ballet's founder, Ninette de Valois, she still reflexively calls her "Madam." When she speaks of larger trends in the ballet world, she adds an aside that she really knows life only inside the Royal Ballet (where she was, among other things, a dazzling Carabosse, the evil fairy who sets the plot of "Sleeping Beauty" in motion).