Royal Ballet Weaves Its Meticulous Spell

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Royal Ballet's production of "Sleeping Beauty," given its U.S. premiere Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, purrs its way through three hours of grandeur with the category-killing engineering of a brand-new Rolls-Royce.

That is to say, it is luxurious and not one bit trendy. It is powerful, yet mostly understated, even a bit square. Quiet command is the guiding force here. Actions speak, not personality or overacting. With costumes in cool shades of blue, lavender and sea foam, "Sleeping Beauty's" world is refined and tasteful, as you would expect for a fairy tale realm in which civility saves the day. Surely no palace erected on the Opera House stage has ever looked loftier or more important. But the looming archways and pillars make their impression on the periphery, leaving the stage clear for the dancing. The effect is elevating and uncluttered, and it forms a reverential frame for the dancers.

Or, more precisely, for the dancers' uncompromising technique. If this ballet had a slogan, it would be "Nail it, dahling." From the leading roles of Princess Aurora (Alina Cojocaru) and Prince Florimund (Johan Kobborg) on down, there was an unbroken line of precision. If the Royal Ballet has lately made its mark more with the facility of its dancers than with any distinctive quality of movement, that technical mastery was put to sterling service in Thursday's cast.

And what better place to flaunt the goods than in this ballet, where classical prowess is a metaphor for human virtue. When Marius Petipa created "Sleeping Beauty" in 1890, he devised it to celebrate the touchstones of the classical age -- harmony, beauty, goodwill, fairness and the divine right of monarchy (he was working for the czar, after all). Superlative classical technique, with its own requirements of balance and physical harmony, becomes a code for these attributes. And their fullest expression is found in the character of Princess Aurora, whose inborn goodness -- nudged along by her fairy godmother -- allows her to vanquish a curse and inherit the throne, thus saving all of humanity. No small job, that.

Cojocaru, quite a small dancer, took on the job well. Her waiflike appearance is deceptive. She combines a buttery lyrical quality with titanium-strength technique. That fragile-looking body conceals an extraordinary core, which allows her to plant herself in one balance after the other. Not only could she perch motionless atop one leg and tiny, arched foot, she could then expand the pose, unfolding herself into a soaring arabesque while her supporting leg remained as stable as a bedpost.

Cojocaru established her focused perfectionism in the first act's "Rose Adage," where the teenage Aurora dances with four potential suitors, just before she succumbs to the magical finger-prick that puts her and the rest of the kingdom to sleep for the next century. But she danced with a more tender, appealing quality in Act 2, where she appears to Prince Florimund as a vision conjured by the clever matchmaking Lilac Fairy (Marianela Nunez). Kobborg is careful and mild-mannered nearly to a fault, but he was believably gobsmacked by Cojocaru. They are a good pair. He lends her substance; she gives him a needed bit of spark.

However cleanly danced the leading roles were, Nunez's Lilac Fairy nearly stole the show. She didn't simply execute steps; she colored them with metaphoric significance and warmth, creating an exceptionally sympathetic character. In comparison, Cojocaru's unblemished performance was a bit like watching a conscientious hostess lay a table just so with her best silver. She was correct beyond reproach, expressed a certain personal flair and did her utmost to please. Yet she revealed everything all at once -- all facets of her considerable talent -- at our first glimpse of her. One of this ballet's pleasures (and it is not three hours long for nothing) ought to be watching the growth of a ballerina, seeing Aurora develop from a promising youth into a worthy sovereign. It is, perhaps, an old-fashioned notion that a ballerina would possess such patience, would invest so much in Aurora's story that she could hold back on wowing us until the wedding scene that unites the future rulers at the ballet's apex. In truth, few dancers in this role build their performances so carefully.

It was just this kind of care and attention to detail that made Nunez's performance truly glow. The Lilac Fairy can become cloyingly sweet, but Nunez brought kindness, intelligence and comforting maternal protectiveness into balance. She was all joy and generosity. And with the fluid sweep of her musical phrasing, she alone evoked the full poetic dimension of Tchaikovsky's score.

Among other strong performances were those of Sarah Lamb and Yohei Sasaki, paired as Princess Florine and her Bluebird. Lamb brought purity and a harmonious sense of scale to the role.

There were a few misfires. Most of the choreography followed what has come down to us of Petipa's, but a new segment by Christopher Wheeldon, the first act's Garland Dance, did not work. It was overly fussy: There was so much greenery onstage it looked like a tossed salad.

Royal Ballet Director Monica Mason is given chief credit for overseeing the production, so it is curious that she created an evil fairy Carabosse who looked like the Bride of Frankenstein but lacked bite -- Mason herself was famous for the wickedness with which she performed the role years ago. In some versions of this ballet, Carabosse is invited to Aurora's wedding at the end, as the ultimate expression of heroic forgiveness, but it was not so here. This ballet was more about vanquishing evil than about peaceful coexistence. But that, one supposes, is a comment on the times.

Performances continue through Sunday afternoon.

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