The Sleeping Beauty has returned to the San Francisco Ballet stage, and it's a fitting opening program to a repertory season that will culminate in a festival of twelve contemporary new works, moving from the classics to the daringly inventive — and it would be difficult to name a more quintessential classical ballet than The Sleeping Beauty. Revived after a decade of absence, artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s 1990 production, based on Marius Petipa’s 1890 original, looks dazzling. And, oh, that gorgeous Tchaikovsky score, the second of three he composed for the ballet, sublimely rendered by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, Martin West conducting.

Sasha De Sola and Carlo Di Lanno in Tomasson's <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i> © Erik Tomasson
Sasha De Sola and Carlo Di Lanno in Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty
© Erik Tomasson

The reason Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty, based on Charles Perrault’s La Belle Au Bois Dormant, matters, is not so much its story. This is no glamorously tragic Swan Lake that haunts and intrigues right up to the end. Indeed, its plot is thin: a royal christening, an omitted guest, a vengeful Fairy of Darkness who puts a curse on the infant Aurora that she will die after a spindle pricks her on her sixteenth birthday; a 100 year nap, an awakening and a wedding. But it stands above all others as the embodiment and pinnacle of 19th century Russian ballet, as well as offering a slice of Imperial Russia and court etiquette (the elegant comportment of the courtiers). The choreography incorporates both the clean, softer style of the French school, with its grace and moderation, and the dazzling spins and footwork of the Italian school. Watching this ballet, one is offered a glimpse of a past world and aesthetic, beautifully preserved.

Tomasson’s production sets the story in Russia, which adds greatly to its cultural heritage. The set, designed by the late Jens-Jacob Worsaae, is gorgeous, depicting a seventeenth-century Russian palace, very Byzantine in flavor, with onion domes in the backdrop distance. Costumes, also designed by Worsaae, fit in perfectly, flowing robes of red, brown and gold that complement the scenery. It’s a nice contrast to when the tutu-clad fairies appear to present the infant Aurora with gifts of tenderness, generosity, serenity, playfulness and courage. On Tuesday night the roles were danced with pluck and panache by WanTing Zhao, Koto Ishihara, Isabella Devivo, Jahna Frantziskonis and Wona Park, respectively. Sarah Van Patten was a warmly empathetic Lilac Fairy and showed elegance, restraint and beautiful lines. She’s a marvel at pantomime, crucial particularly in the first half, where much of the story relies on pantomime to figure things out, as Anita Paciotti, a deliciously villainous Carabosse, casts her curse on the infant Aurora.

Sasha De Sola and Carlo Di Lanno in Tomasson's <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i> © Erik Tomasson
Sasha De Sola and Carlo Di Lanno in Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty
© Erik Tomasson
The night belonged to Sasha De Sola, making her debut as Aurora. San Francisco Ballet audiences have watched her rise up the ranks from apprentice in 2006, to principal last season. When we saw Aurora bounding out for her sixteenth birthday party, excitement making her pas de chats airborne with exuberance, we saw both the character’s delight and a new principal being given her chance to shine. And shine, she did, sailing through the Rose Adagio with strength, grace, and fine balance.

Carlo Di Lanno was a refined, if sometimes aloof Prince Desiré. It’s a tricky role: in Act Two’s opening, the prince must affect disinterest, ennui, as he dances in the company of friends and courtiers, but without appearing bored with his performance. Later, Desiré’s alone time, away from his countess girlfriend and her entourage, allows him to become more genuine, movements more heartfelt. Di Lanno fits the prince role beautifully, with his elegant, lean lines, his regal upper body presentation. His leaps and beats were sensational. But the whole-hearted feeling I saw in his Albrecht during last season’s Swan Lake seemed slow to develop here.

Act III brought a set change that emphasized the 100 year time lapse. Acquired from the Royal Danish Ballet (Tomasson choreographed their production in 1993, utilizing Worsaae again), a gilded, splendid staircase allowed us to observe how Russia, during the reign of Peter the Great, eschewed the old ways in favor of all things Western, particularly French. In this act, Tomasson trimmed some of the divertissements. What remained was strong: the Bluebird pas de deux, brilliantly danced by Wei Wang and Dores André, and a fun, irrepressible Wan-Ting Zhao and Seth Orza as the White Cat and Puss in Boots. The grand pas de deux between Aurora and Prince Desiré found De Sola and Di Lanno in fine form, particularly in the showy, pirouette-into-fish dive passage.

Worth a shout-out were the Garland Dance, the nymphs of Act II’s “vision” scene, and the spirited Polonaise of Act III. One of the delights of this ballet is how many opportunities for the dancers it offers. In a company with such a deep talent pool as San Francisco Ballet, it makes for a splendid night of dance.

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