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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 SEPTEMBER 2016 — The dance season in Paris began in September with the long awaited visit of American Ballet Theater, one of America’s most important classical dance companies. Founded in 1940, its aim from the beginning has been to present the best ballets of the past together with new works by gifted young choreographers. The repertoire is both eclectic and immense. Under the directorship of Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith from 1945 to 1980, works were commissioned from all the great choreographers of the 20th century, including not only Balanchine and Robbins, but also Antony Tudor and Agnes de Mille, the former being the resident choreographer from the company’s early days until 1950. One could have hoped that the company would program such gems as Tudor’s Gala Performance, Dark Elegies, or Echoing of Trumpets, outstanding works rarely if ever seen in Paris, but the company brought Alexie Ratmansky’s new/old restaging of Sleeping Beauty, a surprising choice given the fact that the ballet is one of the jewels of the Paris Opera Ballet and that several excellent versions of this sumptuous work already exist.

The ballet, the result of a close collaboration between Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa based on Charles Perrault’s fairy story, was created in January 1890 at the Mariinski Theatre in St. Peterburg in presence of Tsar Alexander III and his court. Ratmansky, the American company’s current resident choreographer, has in his 2015 version gone as close as he possibly could to what the Tsar presumably saw and enjoyed.

American Ballet Theater in Sleeping Beauty

Following in the steps of Rudolf Nureyev and the distinguished British choreographer, Sir Peter Wright, Alexie Ratmansky has turned to the correspondence between Marius Petipa and Tchaikovsky and closely studied Stepanov’s notation. As his remarkable resurrections of The Bright Stream, and The Bolt show, he enjoys bringing pieces of history back to life and his "new" production is thus built around surviving parts of the original steps with additional choreography of his own. But he has gone further than existing versions of the great 19th century work by returning to the style of dance of the time.

For purists, who despite the passing of time and tastes, prefer that classical ballets return to their roots, (after all, who would fiddle around with Mozart’s music), this interesting but scarcely riveting version is theirs to enjoy.

Certainly, all praise must go to the company, and particularly to the woman who rose to the challenge. The corps de ballet was very pretty, and Gillian Murphy as Aurore, a delight to watch. Gone was the excited, innocent young girl at her birthday party one has become accustomed to see. Murphy, with her gentle face, and soft, feminine dancing was a true fairy tale princess. No feet behind the ears here, but a beautiful demonstration of softly rounded arms and harmonious arabesques while she performed the difficult Rose adagio with a sure, remarkable precision. Serious rather than spontaneous, she was just lovely to watch.

But unfortunately, not the same could be said of her prince, Cory Stearns, a stiff conventional hero rather than a sensitive aristocrat, who had to dance in the style of Pavel Gerdt, a man in his 47th year when he created the role of prince Desire who was probably all too happy to have no virtuoso dancing.  Stearns had little to do but stride around looking manly and dignified. All was very correct. Was this really fair to the male dancers, as well as to those in the audience who had hoped for a few fireworks?  Physiques as well as techniques have changed. Judging from photographs, Carlotta Brianza who created Aurore in 1890 was no sylph while Marie Petipa as the Lilac Fairy was quite a large lady, which was not the case with ABT’s Stella Abrera, a graceful and musical godmother. Skylar Brandt was also seen to advantage as an adorable Princess Florine, partnered by Zhiyao Zhang as the Bluebird.

American Ballet Theater in Sleeping Beauty
Photo: Ula Blocksage

Ratmansky did not return to the décor and costumes of 1890 when the costumes were created by Vsevolojski, director of the Imperial Theatre himself, but chose Richard Hudson to design them after Leon Bakst’ s creations for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes version 30 years later. The majority of them, with their clashing colours and unfortunate cut, were not among the most attractive that Bakst created. A little more elegance would not have gone amiss.

Nonetheless, this was a commendable evening; a step back into history. But one should bear in mind the words of Sir Peter Wright, whose respect for the past is paramount, when he states that change is necessary to save the classics from ending up in a museum and Petipa’s wonderful choreography must work for today’s young dancers who are much more advanced than in the 19th century. Dance is a living art which must move forward. Ratmansky, despite his honourable intentions, got bogged down by being too authentic. Sleeping Beauty is not a ‘lost’ ballet, and neither did she need reawakening. Was this version really necessary?

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque..

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