Coming on the heels of a blizzard, Alexei Ratmansky’s new “Sleeping Beauty” feels like a strong shot of May. Light, love, life: These motifs underlie every aspect of this production, which is as beautiful as it is philosophical.
The creamy opulence of the sets and costumes alone — miles of silk, sashes and feathers, hundreds of wigs — is almost reason enough to indulge in this sweet world, which American Ballet Theatre is bringing to life at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday. Designer Richard Hudson, who won a Tony for his work on “The Lion King,” was guided by the saturated colors and silhouettes used by the artist Leon Bakst in the Ballets Russes’ “Sleeping Beauty” of 1921. The effect is painterly — Louis XIV-Watteau crossed with a little glam-boudoir. No stiff classical tutus; the bell-shaped skirts graze the knees. The upper body is shown to advantage, with a flattering emphasis on feminine curves. The men are in britches. Many of the shoes are heeled.
And yet, with all of this formal attire, so much is revealed. An aesthetic of softness envelops this work like weather. You see it in the drape of the fabrics and in James F. Ingalls’s sunny lighting. But most important, you feel it in the warm, fluid gestures of the dancers.
“The Sleeping Beauty,” as Marius Petipa created it in 1890, is considered the pinnacle of classical form. In some productions, that can translate into rigidity — vertical postures, geometrical poses, a focus on the legs and precision. But Ratmansky pored over notations made in the years after the Petipa premiere and uncovered the details that give his work its human-scale ease and grace. Among them are lower leg lines, less use of pointe work and small but unmistakable details of feeling.
I noticed this first in the dancers’ arms, in how natural and responsive they were, as opposed to being “held” in a shape. Shoulders roll, wrists and hands beckon just enough to add charm. Throughout the cast you see a silken, relaxed quality to the upper body. The whole ballet breathes.
The tone and pace are luxuriant. It is a three-hour journey — from Princess Aurora’s christening, through her youthful encounter with her suitors, to her romance with Prince Désiré and their wedding — and we’re invited to savor every moment. Ratmansky develops us as his co-conspirators early on, whetting our appetite for detail, guiding our attention to the tenderness and spirituality in the Tchaikovsky score. In the Prologue, the fairies who offer their gifts to the infant princess represent a true garden of earthly delights, as the dancers show us so clearly in their light, brilliant variations.
Into this celebration of life, Marcelo Gomes’s magnificent Carabosse, the evildoer, swoops in as the shape of death. He draws our eye not by outsize violence but by a deft array of physical contrasts. He is bunched up, wintry, dry. (Yet he’s also got the fine, articulate fingers and hands; a great touch of consistency.)
Isabella Boyston makes her entrance as Aurora in one of the few infelicitous costumes; her dress has the hint of a bustle at the back and extra volume, making it look heavy. I wasn’t a fan of her wig or headpieces, either. But these didn’t get in the way of her natural warmth and effervescence, to her immense credit. She is playful as the teen monarch-to-be, serene as the royal bride.
But the heart of her portrayal, and of this production, is in the second-act vision scene, where Joseph Gorak’s prince dances with a dream-Aurora, conjured up by Stella Abrera’s willowy, godmothery Lilac Fairy. Here’s where our hearts are captured, because it’s clear that Aurora and this prince are perfect for each other. How do we know? At one point, Boylston whips off a series of pirouettes, first holding her arms low, in front of her, then, as she whirls around again, tossing her hands overhead and arching her back, as if the wind has caught her. She’s buoyed up by nature itself. It’s a thrilling image of openness, vulnerability, devil-may-care joy.
A few moments later, she has darted away, and Gorak’s prince, who is searching for her, suddenly senses her presence behind him. He responds in the same way — arching his back, flinging out his arms in joy, like a sail full of wind, invisibly guided. That spontaneous visual echo brings the two dancers into spiritual harmony, and you feel somehow protective of them.
Ratmansky deeply researched this account, but it doesn’t only look back. What I find most inspiring about his “Sleeping Beauty” is the future it reveals for ballet to more closely concern itself with the human condition. With us.
This Russian-born choreographer, who is ABT’s artist-inresidence, possesses the powers of observation and the largeness of heart that place him in the tradition of the great Russian literary figures. As Tolstoy sympathized with every soul in “War and Peace,” as Turgenev delved deeply into the desires of country folk, Ratmansky treats even the most familiar storybook characters with gentle respect. He accepts and embraces their humanity, flaws and all. Even Carabosse, in the end, is an honored guest at Aurora’s wedding. This “Sleeping Beauty” is just about perfect, but it’s not about perfection. It’s about possibility, and the value of listening, attention and compassion. No wonder it feels like May, even in the grip of winter.
The Sleeping Beauty continues through Sunday with rotating casts at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Tickets: $49-$299. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.