I approached, I confess, with a little skepticism. Who had the daring to undo The Sleeping Beauty that we know and love, the Beauty that is all crisp virtuosity and classical rigour, without it suffering some material loss? Who could claim to be boldly returning to an earlier authenticity? And would it even work? But there was no loss, only all gain. I come away not only convinced, but a convert. Is there any going back? A new standard has been set. Alexei Ratmansky’s painstaking recovery of the genuine 1890 Petipa – he spent his hours and his ardours poring over hundreds of pages of old notation in the Harvard Theater Collection – is from first to last, a glory and a triumph: a restoration that makes one feel that one is seeing the ballet again for the first time – no mean achievement.

Isabella Boylston as Princess Aurora © Gene Schiavone
Isabella Boylston as Princess Aurora
© Gene Schiavone
The conventional Beauty is the epitome of the cult of classical ballet technique: precise footwork, elevations contolled to within a whisker of the impossible, held poses and geometrical postures. And all this comes with a particular show-off style, so that the whole becomes a collection of dazzling party-pieces without much of a narrative thread. Ratmansky has recovered, for the American Ballet Theater, the poetry of the curvilinear, the bent leg, the clean lower lines, the work through the demi-pointe. From the first Act fairies to the Garland Waltzers to Aurora herself (the lovely Isabella Boylston), this gives a strikingly different feel. And it is hugely refreshing. Ratmansky has restored humanity and taken away the brittleness: there is more un-self-conscious joy and free exuberance of movement. In the infamous Rose Adagio, where one is always on the lookout for the statuesque quality, balance and control of the principal, I found myself thinking otherwise. Who cares? She is human. (I should add that her poise was still excellent, aided by a less taxing choreography.)

Out of the shiny classicism, Ratmansky has made it once again a romantic ballet, a love story. And story is the optimum word. Mime was much more integral and detailed, and with it came genial characterization, and a freshness at every turn.The ever bumbling chief minister, the gossiping town spinners caught in flagrant délit (spinning is pretty taboo in the realm, as you might imagine), the ineffectual but good-willed suitors charging off-stage to take revenge against Carabosse (the over-the-top camp malfeasance of Marcelo Gomes) were all lovely nuances. So also was the aristocratic fête champêtre, Fragonard-style, complete with moody Prince – the long-limbed Joseph Gorak – and impotently flirtatious Countess. Moreover, that very lovely and constant filial dynamic between Aurora and her parents was invitingly revealed in glances and gestures. Most strikingly of all, the two Grand Pas de Deux (the first when Aurora is but a figment of the Prince’s dream) became part of this narrative. You even got the impression of two people in love. And I mean: shouldn’t you? Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about, after all? In the more conventional Beauty, love is not in it somehow: there’s far too much posturing and searching after effect.

© Gene Schiavone
© Gene Schiavone

The scenery and costumes are courtesy of Richard Hudson, inspired by the luscious Léon Bakst ones for the Ballet Russes in 1921: both immersed themselves in the opulent atmosphere of the fin de siècle. Like the famously fabulous Duchess of Devonshire’s 1897 Historic Costume Ball, this is a late Victorian imagining of what the eighteenth century must have been like. The costumes almost bankrupted the Ballet Russes, and one can see why. Panniers, bustles, plumes, ruffles and bows, and oh my, what a mama, in 20-inch high wig and two different court mantuas: every possible homage is paid to excess.  

Isabella Boylston and Joseph Gorak © MIRA
Isabella Boylston and Joseph Gorak
© MIRA
The brilliance is there most certainly in Ratmansky’s Beauty, but it is more integral, less ‘stand-alone’, lighter of touch, and carried off with a certain nonchalant panache. It is a production, in short, with a super-abundance of that rare quality in a performance: charm and ease of manner. And what more apt for this most gracious of ancien regime fairy-stories? Somewhere, somehow in the 20th century, what will all the impressive athleticisation of ballet and the rigorous training of ballerinas, we lost grace. Just because we could push the limits, we did. Ballet could be gymnastics with satin shoes. Ratamsky has brought back grace, and in abundance. By gum, this is The Beauty to see, if you can at all.