Ratmansky's New New Old Sleeping Beauty

Photo by Gene Schiavone
I don't exactly understand why this is, but it seems as if ballet companies and choreographers delight in presenting us with their "original" takes on Swan Lake or Nutcracker but when it comes to Sleeping Beauty, they become obsessed with authenticity, original notation, and even recreation of vintage sets and costumes. The ABT (and more specifically Alexei Ratmansky) just debuted yet another "new old" Sleeping Beauty with sets and costumes that are supposedly inspired by Léon Bakst's 1921 Ballet Russes production. And yet again, there are assurances that the choreography is carefully reconstructed from notations.

And when the curtain rose on this Sleeping Beauty I realized that Richard Hudson's sets and costumes were indeed "inspired" by Léon Bakst. That meant heavy, knee-length bell-shaped tutus for the women, primary colors (and color clashes -- Florine's dress is a mix of orange and blue), and of course, huge curly wigs on all and floppy Louis XIV style hats on the extras. What this kind of production often means, however, is dancers dressed in a metric ton of powdered wigs, floppy hats, heavy velvet tutus for the ladies and "modesty trousers" for the men, lots of over the top mime, and little else. So in other words, authentic costumes, restored mime, but Sleeping Beauty like your mother  and grandmother saw it. There are a few videos of the Mariinsky reconstruction of Sleeping Beauty which show that the Auroras donned the heavy knee-length tutus but otherwise danced Sleeping Beauty with the modern style (including the high developpés and attitudes).

Well Ratmansky is a choreographer who, for better or worse, not only demands new choreography from his dancers, but he also demands that the dancers follow his vision and ideals. I saw the NY premiere tonight (the production had made an earlier debut in LA in March) and overall admire the results more than I like them. I'll focus on the positives first. Ratmansky clearly has made more headway than anyone in recent memory of making the ABT dance like an actual company rather than an assorted collection of international guest artists. He's used the entire corps de ballet, plus children from the JKO School, and the group onstage tonight clearly danced like they were guided by a unified vision, similar style and sense of aesthetic. For instance, in the Garland Dance, it was clear that the dancers, from the children to the leading corps, were coached on how to wave the garlands in a sort of low, understated way, without drawing attention to the flowers. You might not agree with that artistic choice, but clearly that choice was made by Ratmansky himself.

The respect and rehearsal time that Ratmansky demands (and gets) from ABT is probably unparalleled in the company's recent history. It shows too. For instance in the Fairy Variations of the first act, the different dancers were clearly coached that their attitudes had to be low, and modest, and their épaulement matched. So Devon Teuscher (Sincerity), Luciana Paris (Wheat), Gemma Bond (Breadcrumbs), Skylar Brandt (Canary) and April Giangeruso (Temperament), dancers of vastly different height, appearance, and probably training all raised their legs to that low attitude, and every angle of their fingers matched.

Ratmansky has also presented more of Tchaikovsky's ballet than the last Sleeping Beauty production which cut the music to shreds. The Vision Act has both the destruction of the knitting needles and the Prince's "journey" around the kingdom during the Panorama. The violin solo is cut but we hear more of the Panorama music and also see more than the Prince simply getting on some sort of sliding contraption with the Lilac Fairy. The Act Three character divertissements are all back (even Cinderella, and a group of boys for the Hop o' My Thumbs trepak which in the old days was often given to the "Three Ivans"), as well as the Jewels. Even with short intermissions and simple drop set changes this is a three hour evening.

Ratmansky has some very firm ideas about how an authentic Sleeping Beauty should be danced, and no one dared contradict and dance "the modern way." For instance, Ratmansky was quoted as saying. "You can't show your underwear to the Czar" and he meant it! The obvious things like low arabesques (below 90 degrees) and even lower attitudes were in place, but less obvious "modesty" styles seem to have been strictly enforced. For instance, the modern training of pulling the working leg up high in passé/retiré pulls the tutu higher. So all the soloists had to pirouette and balance with the working leg just a hair above the ankle. On the one hand, it was a little odd to see, on the other hand, the modern habit of preparing for a pirouette by hiking the leg up high in passé is absent, so pirouettes seem more spontaneous in this Sleeping Beauty revival.

Also in the "underwear to the Tsar" camp are some traditional poses, like the Wedding Act pas de deux movement where Aurora does an extravagant arabesque penchée to kiss the kneeling Prince. In Ratmansky's version there's barely a penchée and the Prince is standing, not kneeling. The pas de deux is more formal, less intimate. Well, it's an artistic choice that you might not like, but it did lend consistency and texture to the production.

Here is as far as Aurora and the Prince get in their pas de deux in the "kissing" move:

Photo by Souheil Michael Khoury
Other artistic choices Ratmansky sat less well with me (and I generally like reconstructions). For one, Ratmansky completely eliminated overhead lifts. Oddly enough the place I missed it the most was not the Wedding Pas de Deux, but the Florine/Bluebird pas de deux. That iconic final lift where Florine goes off "flying" on Bluebird's shoulders is gone. I understand that it might not have been in the Imperial Ballet style for over the shoulder lifts, but that lift between Florine and Bluebird is one of those performance traditions that in my opinion needed to stay. It was the perfect climax for the Florine/Bluebird "story" about a bird teaching a Princess how to fly.

The Mariinsky in their reconstruction DID include the flying lift:

Another issue is that Ratmansky's adherence to the notations was inconsistent. For instance, I doubt it was "notated" for the PussNBoots or Little Red Riding Hood dance to be played so broadly, but they were played for laughs, just as they are in other Sleeping Beauty productions (well, the last ABT production junked them altogether, so ...) But on the other hand, adherence to notation meant that the traditional "acting" poses between Florine and Bluebird are gone. There's no more Florine cupping her ears to "hear" the Bluebird, nor is there any facial expression between the Princess and the Bird. In this case, my hunch is that these gestures and expressions were not notated because they did not need to be -- Petipa would have assumed that the dancers would act out this pas de deux, notation or not. For Aurora and the Prince, adherence to notation was also inconsistent. The fish dives (definitely NOT notated -- they were added for the 1921 Bakst production) were there tonight, but the overhead lift that usually precedes the final fish dive pose was gone.

Ratmansky's biggest artistic choice was to make so much of Aurora's variations on demi-pointe. This choice might be 100% authentic and notated, but it was probably not a choreographic choice as an example of the training and pointe shoes available in Imperial Russia. It was considered "cheating" by Anna Pavlova to make the blocks of her shoes flat and wide so she could balance on them for prolonged periods. Ballerinas over 120 years ago were expected to balance on the strength of their toes alone, and wear softer pointes. However, I suspect that because of their training and musculature, they were used to performing difficult manèges of jumps and turns on demi-pointe with the proper speed and crispness. The ballerinas of today are not trained to dance Aurora's entrance of pas de chats and the manège of chainee and pique turns on demi-pointe. Gillian Murphy (tonight's Aurora) in particular wears hard Gaynor Mindens that are designed so the ballerina does not have an easy time on demi-pointe. As a result Aurora's variations in the first act had a sluggish, sleepy feel, and gave exactly the opposite affect of the bubbly, excited 16 year old princess.

Furthermore, I'm not even sure the insistence on demi-pointe is accurate. A contemporary review by Akim Volynsky of one of the most famous of Aurora's, Mathilde Kschessinskaya, said that her feet had almost "no arch" but marveled that "her dancing -- always on pointe -- produces the impression of a smooth flow of forms, with no springy bending of the knees as she moves and no gentle gracefulness and quivering surge on the surface, and it does so via the powerful and solemn play of its vigorous hues. Her double and triple turns create a whirlwind on the stage. In her solo dancing, in her leaps en avant, which are accompanied by the most difficult cabrioles, Kshessinskaya is unmatched. In her par terre dancing, just as in the dancing constructed on the ethereal rhythm of elevation, Kschesinskaya, for all the imperfections of the structures of her legs, must be recognized as a great artist of phenomenal power."

The results Ratmansky got from his leads were mixed. It was wonderful that he got the corps and the soloists to adhere to his style and vision, but the soloists had a harder time taming their natural tendencies. The dancer who seemed most at home with Ratmansky's rules and regulations was Stella Abrera (Lilac Fairy). The Lilac Fairy in this version has no dancing except for the Prologue. Abrera was able to exude a mysterious benevolent air even while walking around in a huge dress and character shoes. Abrera's a modest, unassuming performer whose gracious manner and elegant épaulement fit the role like a glove. Abrera didn't seem to have to adjust her style to the rigorous aesthetic. She was just tweaking her inherent dancing instincts slightly. She sailed through the Lilac Fairy variation in the Prologue without issue, and the low working leg in pirouettes looked completely natural and organic on her, as did the lower to the ground sissones and grand battements.

Gillian Murphy as Aurora, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The Aurora (Gillian Murphy) was definitely a mixed bag. Her natural instincts are for a straightforward, athletic, spunky interpretation. Ratmansky insisted on her adopting an aura of Imperial elegance and modesty that doesn't quite fit her. Some things looked nice -- the lower developpé and attitudes and rounded arms were aesthetically pleasing under those bell-like knee-length tutus. Some things looked awkward -- Murphy's upright torso was lunged forward in a more old-fashioned, lithographic pose. Some things just flat out did not fit Murphy's technique -- as I said, all those variations on demi-pointe (including the backwards traveling pirouettes and the tour jetés) in hard Gaynor Mindens made Murphy look sluggish and Aurora is supposed to be anything but sluggish in her 16th birthday party! 

Ratmansky's insistence on modesty meant that Murphy could not do what the vast majority of Auroras do with their suitors during the Rose Adagio: "raise arm, balance, lower arm, and hand yank." Instead Murphy had to balance serenely, and just as serenely place her hand in the suitor's hand. This went off without a hitch ... almost. But the first suitor's hand wasn't quite where it needed to be, and Murphy couldn't yank his hand into place, so as a result there was some wobbling. The low developpés that Ratmansky insisted on also took away from some of the Rose Adagio's excitement: it was as if Murphy kept checking to see if her legs were low enough. Murphy's performance was professional, if a bit overcoached and efficient. 

Surprisingly the ever-game Marcelo Gomes ran into grief as Prince Désiré. For one, Marcelo is such a strong partner, so used to lifting ballerinas high and low, that the aloof, hands-off approach Ratmansky demanded made Gomes appear alternately disengaged and dull. This is a pure cavalier role, and that's not really Gomes' forte. Désiré in this production has only one variation -- the Act Three Wedding pas variation, but it's a killer variation with a diagonal of tiny beats and jumps. Gomes' legs are too long, his style too usually grand, and he simply couldn't cope with the petit batterie demanded of him. 

Cassandra Trenary and Daniil Simkin (Florine and Bluebird) were technically fine but as they were unable to really act out the story, their performances were a bit vanilla. Simkin has very fast beats (his variation got applause well before its finish) and all the requirements needed for Bluebird but naturally has a somewhat blank stage presence. Trenary is still in the corps and it's nice that Ratmansky plucked her out for such an important premiere but she doesn't project much beyond a fresh prettiness (and maybe she can't, as the Florine's acting is completely deleted).

All the fairies (mentioned previously) were really excellent, and so were the gems (for the most part). Special mention goes to Skylar Brandt who was absolutely delightful in the Canary variation. One dancer who seemed unable to cope with the new style was the Diamond Fairy, Isabella Boylston. Boylston is a natural jumper. Her upper body and arms can be sloppy. And so it was tonight -- she alone went for the big, air-cleaving grande jetés and in the process her arms started flopping. 

Ratmansky has included a few personal quirks in this Sleeping Beauty -- it wouldn't be a Ratmansky production if we didn't have them. Ratmansky's irreverent sense of humor was inserted into his presentation of Carabosse (a hammy Craig Salstein, so at home in this kind of character role) and even more so by his characterization of Catalbutte (Alexei Agoudine). Ratmansky goes further than most productions to show exactly the kind of fawning, weak royal hanger-on that Catalbutte is, and Catalbutte's acting provided much of the night's laughs. Victor Barbee also acted with broader strokes than the usual Kings. 

But overall, the madcap Ratmansky zaniness that defined much of his previous work was gone. This was indeed a Very Serious Production of a Very Serious Classic. Only time will tell if this new approach will last, or whether in a season or two the costumes and sets will be there, but ABT's assortment of traveling guest artists will have gone back to dancing Sleeping Beauty however they always danced it.


  1. Great review again Ivy. An informative delight to read and I am not a ballet person.

    1. Thanks Madison. It's an interesting production.

  2. Nice review but I'm not sure that we attended the same performance. For ex, the Panorama is severely cut and Lilac & Captain Crunch sail straight off the stage after six measures of the music. The two Bluebird pdd soloists (Trenary & Simkin) were highly expressive, almost outrageously so. Lastly, the Hop o' my Thumb kids do not dance any Trepak; the Three Ivans number in 1921 was danced to the music of the Aurora/Desire PDD's coda.


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