Sleeping Beauty, Take 3

Diana Vishneva, photo by Gene Schiavone
I caught the final Sleeping Beauty in ABT's highly successful run. Alexei Ratmansky's new-old Sleeping Beauty has no doubt been the box office hit of the season -- today's performance was completely sold out (I stood). And I'm glad, because this performance was (overall) the best performance of the run. Saving the best for last, if you will.

A large credit must go to Diana Vishneva, a veteran dancer whose Aurora I caught way back when in 2007 in Gelsey Kirkland's hideous production. I remember Vishneva being unimpressive in that production. She pulled out of later performances of that run. Vishneva has a reputation in the ballet world of being stubborn and at times intractable. Ratmansky however seems to have earned her respect. In an Instagram post today she had this to say about the production:

About working on the Sleeping Beauty by Alexey Ratmansky: This performance is based on the notes by Stepanov, the ones that Sergey Vikharev had used. Alexey decoded and thoroughly studied those notes. The corpo, the movements of hands and head were not there, so of course, the performance contains as well what Ratmansky created himself. It was a hard, a painful even, working process: how to bring those notes to life, to keep the stylistic accordance with the time of their creation whilst giving them the spirit of today where the cleanness of dance increased enormously. Finding the right balance was not easy.
But all that hard work with Ratmansky apparently paid off, because Vishneva's Aurora tonight (and she's near 40) was technically and dramatically stronger than she was almost 8 years earlier. Vishneva as a dancer has changed with age -- extensions no longer come as easily, and her once buoyant jump is now subdued. But Ratmansky's production flatters the older, more mature Vishneva -- "no underwear for the Czar" means that developpés have to be kept low, big flying grande jetés and flashy high attitudes and arabesques are banned. This seems to have freed Vishneva to concentrate on showing off what she can still do. For one, her Rose Adagio balances were rock solid, and she knows that trick of making each successive balance longer. Vishneva broke one of Ratmansky's dictums in the Rose Adagio. Unlike Gillian Murphy or Sarah Lane, she didn't follow the instructions to lean the torso forward, Marie Taglioni style. She kept her torso ramrod straight. But in doing so, her balances were more secure. By the final promenade, the audience was already clapping.

Other strengths of Diana's performance probably stem from her training. She has the pliant spine that's the trademark of Russian schooling. Diana's flexible back allowed her to do a long-held unsupported cambré in the Wedding pas de deux. Her partnership with Marcelo Gomes is always a thing of beauty. Their vision scene pas de deux was tender and sweet, their Wedding pas de deux grand and sweeping. The fishdives were amazing. Each successive one was snappier, faster, and higher. Marcelo and Diana, by the way, came dangerously close to breaking the "no overhead lift" rule.

This role doesn't give Vishneva much room to act (unlike Giselle or Juliet) but dramatically she was still winning -- she has a natural stage face, and her big eyes and smile give the illusion of a youthful freshness.  The only self-serving note was her habit of coming forward to the apron for extended bows after every variation. Vishneva was simply a class above Sarah Lane and Gillian Murphy.

Photo by Gene Schiavone
Marcelo Gomes is not a natural for Prince Desire. That petit batterie in his variation was an explosive tour de force for Herman Cornejo but looked effortful with Gomes. But he was much better tonight than opening night, and seems to have figured out to take the variation at a slower pace rather than forcing himself to attain a speed and elevation that he doesn't have. His partnering however was impeccable. To watch his arms wrap around Vishneva's waist during those fish dives was to see a master class of strength and coordination.

Other aspects of the production have been tinkered with since opening night. The most welcome -- the overhead lift and ear cupping gestures are back in the Bluebird/Florine duet. Yay! (I still miss the flying gesture.) Daniil Simkin was if anything even smoother tonight, and managed to complete his brisé volés without even bending his knees. Cassandra Trenary has learned to project and express more as Florine -- opening night she was fresh and pretty, but not much more than that. Tonight she was adorable, and in the final diagonal she flew along with Simkin with (unusual for ABT women) real elevation. I only saw two Bluebird/Florine casts, but Simkin and Trenary were by far better than Copeland/Shayer.

Some unwelcome changes -- opening night the Garland Dance was marked by low, swinging flowers wreaths. ABT corps now swing the wreaths up and down much more dramatically, but in a kind of jerky motion that goes against the grain of Tchaikovsky's gentle, lilting waltz. The waltz, by the way, is one of those dances that looks better from the orchestra. Tonight from the Dress Circle I could see more of the sloppiness in the formations, and also, as I said, the way the dancers jerked the wreaths up and down. Also, it seems as if Ratmansky's stage directions for Carabosse work better on a male dancer -- Nancy Raffa was actually excellent in articulating the mime, but her smaller, thinner frame didn't make as much of an impact with Ratmansky's very broad, over the top directions. Craig Salstein was much more entertaining.

Nancy Raffa, photo by Gene Schiavone
Veronika Part danced the Lilac Fairy and she was disappointing. She danced the "Marie Petipa" variation instead of the more difficult variation Devon Teuscher and Stella Abrera danced. The Marie Petipa variation is really nothing -- a bunch of attitudes while miming the "cradling" motion. But even with this simplified variation, Part made some puzzling choices. For one, she kept hunching her shoulders forward in a very deliberate, awkward manner. One of the specialties about Part is her broad, regal arms shoulders. Why she'd choose to complete the whole variation so hunched over is a mystery. Of the Lilac Fairies I saw Stella Abrera was by far the best. She performed the more difficult variation without problems, and exuded grace and charm. Teuscher and Part were equally problematic in their own ways.

The prologue fairies (other than Part) were wonderful tonight. Stella Abrera made the Temperament Fairy's arm motions look more natural than anyone else I've seen in the role. Sarah Lane, freed from the pressure of carrying an entire performance, was smooth and charming in the Breadcrumb variation. Skylar Brandt continued to amaze in the Canary variation. Luciana Paris (Wheat) also continued her good work that she's done throughout the run. I do wish the fairies were more matched in height -- Devon Teuscher (Sincerity) towered over Sarah Lane, and the moment when the fairies linked arms in a circle didn't look as together as it could have with more physically similar fairies. But hey, you can't have everything. It's especially puzzling since in the three casts I've seen they've been able to match the Jewel Fairies well in terms of height and physique. Christine Shevchenko was a sparkling, witty Diamond Fairy tonight.

Overall, Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty has been an artistic and commercial success for ABT. He's given many corps de ballet members chances to shine -- for instance, some questioned his inclusion of the Cinderella/Prince variation but the other night I saw Courtney Lavine as a really lovely Cinderella and tonight I saw an equally lovely Gemma Bond. His strict rules on overhead lifts, extensions, variations on demi-pointe instead of pointe, and jumps may not be to everyone's taste, but they suit ABT as a whole. One of the things about ABT is how the crowd-pleasing "star" turns often clash with their army of subdued, low-key soloists and corps members. By forcing everyone, from the "stars" to the corps to drop the legs, round the arms, soften the shoulders, and lower the jumps, he's made this often cruelly hierarchical organization more of an even playing field. Ironic that the ballet that finally made ABT more democratic is an ode to the glories of monarchy.

For those who are curious, here is how Vishneva danced the Rose Adagio over 15 years ago. She was much much stronger tonight. Stronger balances, more classical line, she was just better.


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