Now, with all of that research in mind from the previous post, I can talk about Ben Stevenson’s Sleeping Beauty based on last Wednesday 24th’s dress rehearsal and Friday 26th performance. Also, in addition to this passion-project review, I’m including part one and part two from my series about Houston Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty from its blog. Those posts are mostly just more general Sleeping Beauty and Ben Stevenson’s Beauty history. What can I say, I get carried away by dissecting and researching fairy-tale ballets.
Entrée des fées
I was very taken by what the fairies had to say. Yuriko Kajiya was a gorgeous, charming, delicious Aurora, and Connor Walsh’s Prince Florimund was valiant and bold granted his limited role. But let’s talk about the corps and soloists of Houston Ballet.
The Prologue is enough of a single-act ballet to busy any company. There’s a lot happening at all times, and every single divert has to shine between the pas d’action. But when the corps and soloists are so precise and intent on delivering the message of a fairy-tale ballet, you get something truly special on stage.
The 5 fairies for Stevenson’s production are named: Beauty (Nao Kusuzaki), Generosity (Katelyn May), Charm (Chae Eu Yang), Song (Jacquelyn Long), and Temperament (Allison Miller), along with Lilac (Katharine Precourt). In the score the fairy variations are labeled: Candite, Coulante, Miettes qui Tombent, Canari qui Chante, Violente. But they can sometimes be referred to as: Tender , Playful, Generous, Brave, and Carefree, or: Diamond, Sapphire, Gold, Silver, and Caraboss.
I’m mentioning this because fairy context, while not vital, is pleasing for this variation section and adds personality beyond the actual dancer. One fairy after the other in such a quick succession can become hypnotizing–in the bad sense.
And labeling them as “supporting role” is an understatement; Lilac has to connect with her companions, not rule over them. Which means that Lilac isn’t necessarily in a Queen-type position over the 5 fairies. Again, I make the comparison to Myrtha and the Willis. At 27 and after years of watching various productions of Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, I’m still not sure which tribe of supernatural women I admire and adore the most.
If you’re an audience member like me, you don’t want to get wrapped up in the exact personality of the dancer during Sleeping Beauty. This is a fairy-tale ballet about fairy-tale characters; individual dancer personalities are easier to accept in more contemporary or neo-classical works. Which brings me to Carabosse (Jessica Collado).
Scène mimique de Carabosse
She isn’t a witch. She isn’t exactly true evil. She isn’t even old in Stevenson’s production. She’s just a really pissed off fairy with the personality of Joan Crawford in so many of her malevolent roles. Stevenson’s decision to trade the heavily mimed-male trope of the original 1890 production worked well in his favor. She’s become a character which audiences are continuously attracted to for various reasons.
At first glance, her appearance can invoke a strong audience interest beyond the traditional Princess-tutu costume which Aurora wears. There are green-with-envy snake coils resting from her bodice to her nearly 19th-century styled tutu. Threads of spider-webs are wrapped along her bodice as well, connecting her to the whole cobweb theme in the set design which closes Act I. Desmond Heeley was a true genius in construction and cohesion.
Stevenson’s Carabosse isn’t mime heavy, but she has to trade a short technical variation for, Entrée de Carabosse and Scène mimique de Carabosse. These two sections at the end of Act I are the bread and butter of the ballet. Without this the whole Rose Adagio and Danse d’Aurore avec le fuseau become pointless. The curse is crucial to the whole fairy tale, in general.
There is the Act I plot hole that I usually can’t stand in various productions: Lilac usually dances during the gift variations titled, La Fée des lilas–voluptueuse. Yet, she gives the saving gift of sleep during Scène mimique de la Fée des lilas. Did she just give 2 gifts to Aurora? Should there be 6 fairies in the cast, THEN Lilac with her saving gift? I think so. But that didn’t bother me so much with this production, and I’m not so sure why. Possibly cause I was so enthralled with Carabosse’s vicious presence.
But, alas, that’s truly the end of Carabosse’s time on stage. She reappears during the Panorama in Act II, but only as a shadow of what she was in Act I. Cowering, fearful, hidden, we hardly get a chance to connect to her demise. I fondly know her as a cruel creature en pointe.
I already wrote what I had to say about Act II, aka my favorite and the most important Act in Sleeping Beauty. (I will note that I saw Elise Elliott at dress and Alyssa Springer on Friday in the role of Countess, and they were both super lovely and attractive in this “minor” character role.) Onwards into Act III…
Royalty. The aristocracy. It shows it’s elitist gilded face in full force during Act III, yet not so much blindingly in the Prologue or Act I. The main differences being the interactions and connections made between the royal background characters and the “decoration” dancers. Authentic reactions are key.
From what I’ve been researching, Stevenson–with Dame Margot’s coaching and instance in 1990–wanted an all-inclusive cast on stage at all times. However, what I saw both nights was a wonderfully engaging Prologue, Act I, and Act II, and a disenchanted Act III. And this isn’t the fault of the dancers or Ben Stevenson entirely.
For nearly 40 minutes, Act III drags on in the divert speed-race of the century. Moments of odd silence in between each divert adds another level of disconnection on top of it. It’s the classical ballet tradition direct from late 1800 Russia. And it’s overblown on today’s stage.
I find myself watching the sidelines, as I’ve seen these showy variations over and over and over again (Granted, I’ve done the same with Act III in La Bayadere, but something magical happens during those diverts and not these). The obvious inclusion of a court not too big but not too small on the side surrounded by a lavish set is too much for me.
First off, the Garland Dance opens Act I, yes, but the peasants using a spindle during Scène des tricoteuses aren’t including in Stevenson’s production and many other productions–for the sake of time–and that hinders the royalty-peasant situation. They simply weren’t introduced giving no context for the spindle’s surprise reoccurrence via Carabosse. They just start randomly dancing in Act I’s famous Garland Dance with nothing of the equivalent during Act III.
Then we have the smaller Act II mixture–100 years into the future, remember–of commoners and nobility. I LOVED watching Act II’s side characters poke fun at the courtiers– Shu Kinouchi and Monica Gomez were noticeably hilarious in their peasant roles during this Act. But when we get to Act III, the entire court is dead as a doornail.
They sit with their hands folded or stand on one leg then the other, an arm nobly bend at the waist. Occasionally an arm will lift gracefully as Aurora piques across the stage. Occasionally some heads will nod to the Prince. But the relationship between divert and nobility is strained and cold.
The peasants who were previously included (but not respected) aren’t allowed in anymore, which I’m sure lacks historic creditability–why would 100 years previous include peasants in royal functions and 100 years later not? In the end, this lack of performance continuality is the Achilles heel for this and other Sleeping Beauty productions. It’s just people watching-people watching-people…
Luckily, the diverts are entertaining enough that they don’t allow normal general audience members to gaze anywhere else. The Pas de Quatre, although danced handsomely by 4 leading principals and soloists, isn’t exactly developed enough in this production–other productions include some fairies back with this section rather than random nobility. And the only saving grace for young and old audience members happen to be the Cats. (I hate that cat divert so much… but everyone else seems to buy it year after year)
The Bluebird and Princess Florine (all the dancers cast in these two roles were riveting) are that rich, simple kind of beautiful. Shut your mind off and float away, since there’s no pas d’action inside of their divert. We all get the simply beautiful action and motifs. Also the Ivans for this production help bring the life back before the dreary Grand pas/solos.
Yes, I’m not a fan of Aurora’s Act III variations. She has entirely become a woman of noble birth and title. She’s completely devoid of her vigor and charm and sensuality in Act I and II. Granted Sara Webb and Yuriko Kajiya were technical masters of this variation on stage, there’s something hard-edged in the way Aurora’s presented in Act III. And it’s written that way! It’s not a dancer’s performance that I’m talking about. This is the way that it is circa 1890.
In Act III Aurora the-married-off-Princess must dance like this to prove that she has “grown up.” Which apparently means leaving her intriguing personality at the gates, right next to the uninvited peasants making fun of the courtiers. Why couldn’t there be more inclusion of her more authentic self in these key movements. She doesn’t have to reflect the heavy, drab chandeliers hanging above head.
There’s a great fear of including teenage emotions inside of adults once they have “transformed” in ballets. I wonder why this isn’t exactly the case for the actual fairy tale. In the written fairy tales, I feel she’s still herself.
I’m part of the group that could do without Act III. It’s not the time aspect–I would gladly watch 4 hours of the original 1890 production if it meant more time spent on the pas d’action and characters. And I’m not saying an entire reanimated staging is necessary for this era. I actually prefer the few reconstructions visually over the many different stagings by more modern choreographer/designer teams. Act III is just too disconnected of a situation, overall.
But if I had to watch Ben Stevenson’s Sleeping Beauty again, I would do so gladly. It’s the last Stevenson production in HB’s current rep, and I have a feeling that Stanton Welch might want to follow AB’s footsteps and create his own production in the years to come… But this production is marvel in its own right. There’s so much detail to pick up on–and critique, obviously–with waves of that beautiful, iconic composition drifting across all areas of the Wortham thanks to the sumptuous live orchestra.
Below are some photos I dug up from the archives detailing Ben Stevenson’s Sleeping Beauty past and present. Again, my reposted 2-part series will have a lot more Stevenson history written out. I mostly wanted to include some photos that define this special production.
- Like many productions, Carabouse’s role has been converted from calculated-mimed-male-elder to virile-conniving-female en pointe. It’s a real spectacle! Although, I really hate her demise in Act II, riding on top of a weird, stuffy demon creature…
- I sneaked some 6th floor peeks of rehearsals a few times during last week. This photo was taken at the old HB building in 2011, but the same vibe remains. I loved how focus all of the dancers were during the lengthy rehearsal hours for this one. It really is a classic ballet fine-tuned to classical ballet technique.
- Who can forget the glory of Li Cunxin and Janie Parker dancing together? Stevenson molded this production to their strengths, and it shows. The dancing pairs that have followed these two have large shoes to fill, but so far many of them have succeed with brilliant performances as Aurora and Florimund.
- Dame Margot Fonteyn at the age of 71 coached Janie for the premiere of this production. Janie Parker had been part of the Stevenson Sleeping Beauty tradition since the Farmer production in the 80s. Little details were worked out during these rehearsals between two phenomenal women. I wish I could have witnessed that exchange of wisdom.
- Desmound Heeley’s designs are still stunning as ever, especially in the costumes. In deep homage to Messel’s designs from the Royal’s 1946 production, he kept many elements intact. However, it’s kind of an eye-soar to see the royal family in Act I wearing lavish silver and gold while their teenage daughter is questionably sporting pepto-bismal pink… I think Dame Margot and Messel’s original Act I Aurora design was a bit less neon hued.
- A weird choice of marketing image… Oddly, it reminds me of Cocteau’s hauntingly fuzzy film, La Belle et la Bête.
- And there’s this wonderful BBCFour documentary to watch! Please learn a bit more about the history of England’s ballet tradition after WWII, cause I certainly can’t cover it all. It’s a truly remarkable history; one could say, even more remarkable than ballet’s Russian roots?
For further research in the ballet productions of The Sleeping Beauty, I STRONGLY recommend this book, Dancing the Fairy Tale: Producing and Performing The Sleeping Beauty by Laura Kay Rizzo. It helped me through my essays at TXST.