Sublime, but Not Subtle

The classic ballet (with Zhong-Jing Fang) features costumes and sets glaring enough to keep any princess awake.
The classic ballet (with Zhong-Jing Fang) features costumes and sets glaring enough to keep any princess awake. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008

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 fruit-salad 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 unfolding 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 Sleeping Beauty continues through Sunday, with cast changes.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company