Democracy Dies in Darkness


American Ballet Theatre brings a lush new 'Sleeping Beauty' to D.C.

January 28, 2016 at 3:57 AM

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. (Gene Schiavone)

In 2007, Gillian Murphy danced the lead role of Princess Aurora in American Ballet Theatre's "The Sleeping Beauty." She's reprising the part at the Kennedy Center this week, but it's not as easy as retracing her old steps.

That's because ABT's new production restores the ballet to its roots — a time when ballerinas were more pliant and their focus was on storytelling rather than picture-perfect form.

Working off of the original 1890 notations by Russian choreographer Marius Petipa, ABT artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky has returned the classic ballet to something close to its original form — creating a "Sleeping Beauty" that prioritizes grace over athleticism and acting over acrobatics.

That has posed some challenges for Murphy, who is experiencing new kinds of muscle aches because she's used to kicking her feet all the way to her head. For this production, she holds her legs closer to shoulder height.

"In an odd way, having the legs lower is a little uncomfortable," she says. "We aren't as conditioned to do that."

No matter the production, the role of Princess Aurora is one of the hardest in classical ballet. Aurora is a perfect princess who, on her 16th birthday, pricks her finger and falls into a 100-year slumber (Disney's 1959 animated film popularized the classic fairy tale). The role requires strong acting skills — it's not easy to imbue a goody-two-shoes princess with emotional depth, Murphy says — and it demands serious endurance, as she's onstage for nearly the entire first act.

"From the moment Aurora enters, she has to exude joy and innocence and vitality," Murphy says. "And then she goes right into the 'Rose Adagio,' which is famously tricky to balance."

In that set piece, four suitors spin Aurora like a top as she balances on the tips of her toes. For this production, Aurora sometimes turns on the balls of her feet, in a position known as "demi pointe." That's because ballet pointe shoes weren't as supportive in 1890, when "The Sleeping Beauty" premiered, Murphy says.

"It's actually a little bit awkward, to be honest," she says. "It's part of what makes this ballet a sort of historical experiment."

That experiment extends to the clothing, says costume and set designer Richard Hudson. For instance, the ballerinas' skirts are knee-length — longer than what today's audiences are used to, though not quite as long as they were in the original production.

"I think the longer tutu makes the choreography more romantic, more poetic, less vulgar and athletic," Hudson says. Also, "there are no men in tights — all the male characters wear breeches or pantaloons."

The resulting ballet is lush and graceful, he says.

"I think Alexei has devised a production of 'The Sleeping Beauty' which tells the story with great clarity, simplicity and beauty," Hudson says. "It's unlike any production I've seen before."

Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Thu. & Fri., 7 p.m., Sat., 1 & 7 p.m., $49-$299.

By the numbers
American Ballet Theatre's opulent new production of "The Sleeping Beauty" cost $6 million. The price tag includes:

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I'm the "Staycationer," author of a biweekly column reviewing tourist hotspots in the Washington, D.C. area. I also preview upcoming performances and write quirky and fun feature stories on museums, monuments, music, dance, arts, animal behavior, science, travel, tourism, fun things to do in D.C.

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