Dance critic

One beautifully detailed scene after another, masses of sumptuous costumes and a breakout, starmaking showcase for dazzling new company member Katherine Barkman: The Washington Ballet’s first production of “The Sleeping Beauty” is every bit the show of refinement it was destined to be.

The company officially opened this impressive account of the work considered the pinnacle of ballet classicism on Thursday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, with Barkman in the leading role of Princess Aurora, paired handsomely with Rolando Sarabia’s understated finesse as Prince Désiré.

The run is sold out, though company officials say an odd ticket or two may still be found. Disappointed ticket-seekers should be consoled, however; the company will surely mount this ballet again, and soon, because it’s not only a splendid production — it’s also a distinctly personal achievement for Artistic Director Julie Kent and her husband, Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee.

With their years of experience dancing “The Sleeping Beauty” over long careers at American Ballet Theatre, Kent and Barbee staged this account of the beloved fairy tale from a deep fund of artistic and historical knowledge, as well as devoted feeling. Their company as a whole has caught the smooth, legato spirit with which Kent and Barbee have imbued this production.

While there is room for polishing, it looks more finished than the Washington Ballet’s earlier assays of the full-length ballets “Giselle” and “Romeo and Juliet.” This “Sleeping Beauty” is a good fit for the Eisenhower Theater stage with its visual richness, its draped and layered costumes in subtle pastels and soaring, palatial sets from Salt Lake City’s Ballet West. Equally impactful is the production’s overall confidence. It saunters forth knowing that every hair is in place, every element is irreproachably tasteful and of the best quality it can afford, and nothing clashes.

Barkman, a Philadelphia native who joined the company last fall, is a jewel of a ballerina, with her pure, effortless technique and easy charm. It’s said that when the great British ballerina Margot Fonteyn danced Aurora in New York in 1949, leading the modest yet spunky precursor to the Royal Ballet, she solidified the entire reputation of English ballet with her miraculous balances. Without drawing a direct comparison to that moment and that legend, let’s just say that Barkman is similarly dark-eyed and petite, with a clean, classical line to her body. But most of all it is her ebullient warmth, buoyed by fluid skill and an utter absence of affectation, that brings greatness to mind.


Katherine Barkman in the leading role of Princess Aurora, paired handsomely with Rolando Sarabia’s understated finesse as Prince Désiré. (xmb Photography)

She has a high, light jump and an easy freedom in her limbs, and she can nail an unassisted balance without looking frozen. These are the big gifts. The smaller ones are just as important: Barkman’s attention to the harmonious curve of her lifted arm and wrist, framing her face as she turned. And the melting softness in her body when she bowed over her leg to Sarabia’s prince at the start of their wedding scene pas de deux. Barkman’s princess, who has never capitulated to anyone, showed us humility and love in that brief gestural display. Yet she also is a true queen, newly awakened to her powers, as she made clear in the next beat, drawing herself up onto one leg, with Sarabia’s support (he was a prince of anyone’s dreams), finally unfolding into a balance she held freely, in unforced triumph.

As the protective Lilac Fairy, Kateryna Derechnyna looked as if she were next in line for the throne, serene yet commanding. The magnetic Daniel Roberge brought a truly frightening bite to his Carabosse, the evil fairy; he was a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West and a manic Jack Nicholson.

The Washington Ballet Orchestra, led by guest conductor Charles Barker, sounded thin in spots and needs stronger brass. And aside from Roberge’s turn, there is precious little wit in this production. That’s far better than striving for gags, but even historic interpretations allow for comic timing and human interactions, to leaven the consistency. In between the big dance moments, there is a shade of stiffness here, at times the look of a gold-flecked painting more than life. The product of caution and perhaps opening-night apprehensions, it may yet melt away with more familiarity.

The Washington Ballet performs “The Sleeping Beauty” at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through Sunday, with cast changes. $25-$160. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.