Alexei Ratmansky's 2015 reconstruction of The Sleeping Beauty is obviously a labor of love. It was based on meticulous research both of the original Stepanov notations and the famous 1921 Ballets Russes production designed by Léon Bakst.

Cassandra Trenary in <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i> © John Grigaitis
Cassandra Trenary in The Sleeping Beauty
© John Grigaitis

Ratmansky's research yielded rich rewards. Mime that has been distilled or deleted in other productions is back, and is so clear and direct. Some often-omitted scenes are restored – the stunningly beautiful moment when Aurora balances on a clam shell in the Vision Scene, the Cinderella pas de deux in the Wedding, the knitting scene before Aurora's birthday. Ratmansky did not restore the Panorama but overall this Sleeping Beauty is more complete than most productions around the world.

Ratmansky has continued to tinker with it. This year he did away with the iconic fish dives in the Wedding pas de deux. They were an addition by Serge Diaghilev, but Ratmansky found the original notation which is a deep sideways lunge into the Prince's arm.

This research and care is all good and wonderful. Less successful is Ratmansky's insistence not only of restoring the original steps, but that the dancers dance in a way that he believes is truer to the 1890 Imperial Ballet style. Jumps are very low to the ground, pirouettes and passés are low and prepared by free leg going only up to the ankle, legs are never raised over 90 degrees in arabesque and attitude; chaîné and piqué turns are done on demi-pointe, and modern press overhead lifts are banned.

Some of these changes make sense because of the standards of modesty in 1890. However other changes are actually unmusical. For instance, at the end of Aurora's variation at her birthday party, she does a ménage of coupé jetés. These signify Aurora's growing independence – she's ready to explore the world. It's this independent streak that leads to her playing recklessly with the spindle. However with Ratmansky's version the coupé jetés are very slow, controlled, with no attack. This contradicts not only the spirit of Aurora, but Tchaikovsky's music, which accelerates during this section.

Scene from <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i> © John Grigaitis
Scene from The Sleeping Beauty
© John Grigaitis

Another example of Ratmansky's changes sometimes working against the music is the Prologue fairies. Their iconic arm gestures symbolize the different gifts they bestow, and Tchaikovsky's music for each of the fairy variations is distinct with contrasts in tempi and flavor. However Ratmansky's fairies move with less extreme arm and hand gestures, and the variations are taken at a slower, even-keeled speed. The fairies adopt a gentle, almost simpering tone. Did Petipa intend for the fairies to look so twee?

The cast I saw made the best possible case for Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty. Cassandra Trenary was a winning, radiant Aurora. She started with a rock-solid Rose Adagio where she also remembered to smile and make eye contact with all the suitors. In the Vision Scene she really was a vision, and her long balance on the clam shell made her seem not quite human. In the Wedding pas de deux she showed maturity, but still radiated sweetness. With that being said I wonder how much more of an impact Trenary could have made had she been allowed to jump higher off the ground, to dance with more modern attack and speed.

Joseph Gorak seemed born to play Prince Désiré. His elegant line, slightly aloof persona, and solid technique made him able to conquer all the challenges of playing the Prince, including the fiendishly difficult variation that is full of petit batterie. He was a decent partner for Trenary's Aurora.

Joseph Gorak in <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i> © John Grigaitis
Joseph Gorak in The Sleeping Beauty
© John Grigaitis

Stella Abrera was the most natural and warm of Lilac Fairies, radiating benevolence. Her large eyes and sweet smile cast a spell over the entire stage. She mimed not just with her arms and hands, but with her entire body. Her variation with those difficult pirouettes in arabesque were a bit labored, but that's a small quibble compared to the grace she brings to this role year after year.

Catherine Hurlin and Joo Won Ahn were a fantastic Florine and Bluebird. Here is where Ratmansky seems to have relaxed his rules – Hurlin and Ahn did the pas de deux as modern audiences are accustomed to seeing it. Ahn ripped across the stage in the Bluebird's famous flying diagonal and the audience, after almost three hours of seeing the deliberately old-fashioned dancing style, roared in applause.

Other excellent portrayals: Alexei Agoudine as Catalabutte, Keith Roberts as a Carabosse that is played for pure terror and not laughs, and Luciana Paris who was excellent as both the Wheat Fairy in the Prologue and dazzling with her quick footwork as the Diamond Fairy.

This ballet requires a huge cast, and not everyone was at the same level, but overall, the dancers were excellent. If the audience response was not very enthusiastic, it's because Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty, four years after its premiere, still comes across as more of a museum piece than a living, breathing ballet. This is a Beauty that never really wakes up.


NB. The above review has been edited for clarification after the choreographer made contact with the author.

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