Something very bad has happened. A few frisky peasant women in bright blue and white dresses have been caught knitting on the palace grounds, where needles are banned! It’s Princess Aurora’s 20th birthday, and should she prick her finger, a fairy’s curse will put her to sleep until a prince thinks to kiss her. The king angrily decrees life imprisonment for the knitters. Then, on the Met stage, surrounded by members of his court, he reconsiders, while they plead for mercy. Minutes and rich measures of Tchaikovsky furl by, and the king— magnificently played by Vladimir Ponomarev— thinks. An incident in a spectacularly bedizened fairy tale becomes a meditation on justice.
In the St. Petersburg of 1890, ballet’s aristocratic audience had time on its hands. Pomp cannot be hustled along, nor should matters of state. The great Petipa-Tchaikovsky collaboration The Sleeping Beauty reflected the court’s insistence on ceremony, hierarchy, and etiquette. For the young man soon to be Nicholas II, who was 20 (like the ballet’s heroine Aurora) when the idea for the ballet was first broached, it might be considered a cautionary tale: Take care not to leave an important personage— especially a powerful, bad-tempered fairy— off your guest list.
The Kirov’s new Beauty affirms a measured way of doing things— the audience goes home close to midnight— and shows what more streamlined productions do not. Courtiers, for instance, stroll about a while after glimpsing the infant princess, miming “Isn’t she beautiful?” and “She’s sleeping!” We can finally understand how the elaborate procession of fairy-tale characters in the last act delighted its original audience before any of them danced a step. Makhar Vasiev, the director of the venerable state-
supported company, and his associates sought out designers’ sketches from 1890 and assembled notes on Marius Petipa’s original ballet. Sergei Vikharev, who did the restaging, studied notations carried out of Russia during the revolution by regisseur Nikolai Sergeyev and now in Harvard’s Theatre Collection. Russia’s egalitarian and economically stressed population can now enjoy the height of tsarist opulence.
The sets, reproduced by Andrei Voitenko, are beautiful, especially the Act I palace courtyard, with its flanking buildings, steps, statuary, leafy trees, and Neptune fountain. There’s no shortage of litters and carriages. The production manages everything but the unrolling panorama that originally created the illusion of the prince’s voyage to find his destined love. Ivan Vsevolozhsky’s 1890 costumes have been, for the most part, fastidiously reproduced by Elena Zaitseva. Oh, those getups! Wonderful, almost garish to the 20th-century eye, they’re as decorated as a Victorian parlor. Swags draped about the women’s hips suggest bustles. Color coordination was still in the future.
Something-and-white apparently signaled the height of onstage taste: couples in red and white promenade with those wearing royal blue and white and emerald green and white. My favorite outfits belong to four ladies: calf-length black satin dresses patterned in gold, with white and gold drapery over them. Tights are often bright-colored. Tutus are fluffy affairs that come halfway to the knee and bounce enticingly with every jump.
Many of the famous pas accord with those we know. But a ballet fan can get excited over unfamiliar versions of familiar variations. No flashy fish dives in the wedding pas de deux. Who would have imagined a Lilac Fairy executing big leaps? The company dances with brio and clarity of line, although I wouldn’t rank their technique higher than other world-class ballet troupes. The principals and soloists seem to excel at petit allegro— those steps so rapid that the feet shimmer— as in the Canary fairy’s variation of the Prologue (animatedly performed by corps dancer Yana Selina). They can also command a lyric grandeur, smooth and fluid. In darting or thrusting steps, the women sometimes land jarringly, unresiliently, as if they’d locked their ankles.
The opening-night Aurora, Svetlana Zakharova, projects sweet and limpid innocence, and dances with fine precision. Her carriage often seems mannered, inclining slightly forward from the hips, yet at the same time arching back. The audience adored her 12-o’clock-high développés in the Rose Adagio, but I thought the display of modern virtuosity and crotch not in keeping with the production, and unseemly in a princess meeting four suitors for the first time. I also found it odd that she kept looking at the audience rather than at the princes so graciously helping her to stand on one toe and prove her mettle. Igor Zelensky plays the hero with low-keyed nobility and excels in the big, easy leaps of his variation (a 20th-century addition).
Veronica Part is a fine Lilac Fairy, bold yet gracious. A very young-looking Anton Korsakov seems looser than I’d expect a Bluebird to be, but manages the rapid fluttering jumps with élan, as does his partner Daria Pavlenko. There’s an ample amount of excellent dancing, but for the first time I felt the importance of the story and the ceremonies— not just as a frame but as a whole, which dancing embellishes and enlightens.
One of the pleasures in attending the Kirov performances is hearing the company’s orchestra, under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda. We haven’t heard ballet music played this well in New York for some time. And— rare treat— violinist Alexander Vasiliev soloed in Tchaikovsky’s melting, seldom-heard symphonic entr’acte that precedes the celebration following the awakening kiss.
An awakening kiss is not what I expected to get from the evening, but that’s what I received— a new understanding of what this great balletic hymn to order, proportion, and ceremony may have meant to those who saw it over a century ago.
One of the season’s most miraculous downtown events was performed only once, as part of Danspace’s Silver Series. Pray it recurs. I say that firmly even though I could only attend less than two hours of a rehearsal for Sara Rudner’s Dancing on View; the reworking of her 1975 come-and-go-as-you-like piece lasts twice that long. On June 19, the original performers— Rudner, Risa Jaroslow, Wendy Perron, and Wendy Rogers— were joined by 16 other stupendous women. I didn’t hear the musicians or see Robert Kushner’s backdrop. My backdrop was a clutch of awed and laughing faces belonging to performers not involved in the action of the moment, and surprised to see how the whole thing was turning out.
You don’t often see dancing this rich, this full of variety, and performed as if it were an experience as demanding as living a truly good life. The movement can look velvety one minute and starchy the next, easy-going or athletic, juicy or tossed off. But its manners are always informal, unaffected, down to earth. Dancing on View isn’t just a performance, it’s a landscape. We watch three women lounging here, a playful duet there, a sudden onrush of other interesting people, smartly funny dialogues, beautiful and complex solos. Set choreography mingles with structured improvisation. Sonali Prasad, the timekeeper, signals the changes in activity. For more than 45 minutes tall Cathe Stewart anchors one corner, thoughtfully spooling out a marvelous swatch of material contributed by Australian choreographer Russell Dumas. Jodi Melnick rehearsing Rudner,
Peggy Gould, and Rocky Bornstein in a hissing, clawing bit of serious foolery tells them, “There’s no more fifth position.” They’re stunned. Patricia Hoffbauer occasionally talks with us about what’s going on. But we’re already in that landscape with the rest of them— feeling their heat in our muscles, their sweat in our souls.