Carabosse, bad fairy and inveterate party spoiler, came early to Wolf Trap last night; a bomb scare delayed the start of Houston Ballet's "Sleeping Beauty" by 45 minutes. While security personnel searched the Filene Center, the audience retained its good humor, continuing to picnic or listen to the extended preperformance lecture-demo put on by park personnel.
It would be nice to say that when the performance did start it was so wonderful that the wait was well worth it, but alas, although this light, cozy production looks more at home at Wolf Trap than it did at the Kennedy Center some seasons back, it's only a sketch of what the ballet should be. "The Sleeping Beauty" is the grandest of the great Russian classics, created by and for a very grand, and rich, company. Aside from glorifying the Romanov dynasty, it retold one of the greatest of the Good-and-Evil myths. And, choreographically, it's considered by many to be Petipa's greatest work, both touch- and capstone of classical style.
Ben Stevenson, Houston's artistic director, has about a quarter of the personnel that Petipa did, and God knows what fraction of his budget, but "Sleeping Beauty" is one ballet that simply can't be stinted. For openers, this one is severely underpopulated. The King and Queen (who wander in on their daughter's christening as though they're walking into their rec room) preside over a kingdom of 10 courtiers, some folk dancers, a passel of fairies and two servants. If the dancers have been told anything about how a court should behave, it hasn't sunk in.
It's a fidgety production. Much of the original Petipa has been left in, though Stevenson has seen fit to fiddle. The fairies' cavaliers, for example, intrude into every possible nook and cranny of the ensemble dances in the Prologue. They lift the fairies a lot, presumably showing displeasure at Carabosse's curse. Aurora bourre'es rather than walks on. But these little touches don't add anything to the ballet. And the notion of putting Carabosse (a character part traditionally played by a man as a grand, grotesque monster) on point doesn't help much. If Carabosse dances (and these made-up steps were neither very interesting nor particularly well performed), she loses her mime, and if she doesn't mime, we don't know the story.
As for the actual dancing, although they try hard, classicism is a second language for these folks (as it is for most of today's dancers). They have to remember to look elegant, and so look affected, and their energy, all in big grins and flourishing hands, is tacked on instead of coming through their dancing.
There were individual exceptions. Jeanne Doornbos was a warm and capable Lilac Fairy, and she'd have been even better if her variation hadn't been played at half speed and half her mime hadn't been confiscated. Two of the fairies (Patricia Tomlinson and Sandra Organ) danced their variations stylishly. And Rachel Jonell Beard showed lovely feet and line as Princess Florise in the wedding act divertissement. In the same act, all three Ivans did some terrific somersaults and Russian character dancing to the Hop o' My Thumb music (another of Stevenson's changes).
Janie Parker's Aurora improved with each act. She was languid at her birthday party, lyrical in the vision scene, and a true Princess at her wedding. Her Prince Florimund was Kenneth McCombie, a noble partner whose dancing and stage presence are on the dull side.
The conflict between good and evil? Warm smiles from Lilac and pique' tours from Carabosse. All the parts of "Sleeping Beauty" have to work for the story to come through, and there was no magic here.