In a repertory season that celebrates contemporary ballet, San Francisco Ballet pauses at the halfway mark to present the most classical of ballets, with Helgi Tomasson’s 1990 The Sleeping Beauty. Faithful to the Petipa original, based on Charles Perrault’s La Belle Au Bois Dormant, Tomasson’s production sports stunning costumes and set designs by the late Jens-Jacob Worsaae, which place the story in 17th century Russia, before the reign of Peter the Great. The flavors are distinctively Byzantine: browns, golds, reds, found in the resplendent, flowing robes, the pillars and palace walls, all of which bear a marked contrast to the Act III, post-100-year nap world, which has become very French-inspired in attire, powdered wigs, court etiquette and décor. On Sunday afternoon at the War Memorial Opera House, it was like an Imperial Ballet history lesson come to life.

Vitor Luiz (Prince Desiré) in SFB's <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i> © Erik Tomasson
Vitor Luiz (Prince Desiré) in SFB's The Sleeping Beauty
© Erik Tomasson

Tchaikovsky’s score is a masterpiece, one of his closest collaborations with Marius Petipa and few ballets so successfully meld dance with music. At Aurora’s christening, the tutu-clad fairies’ arrival presented a delightful visual and aural contrast to the staid Byzantine splendor, aided by Craig Miller’s lighting. WanTing Zhao was a compelling, grace-laden Lilac Fairy in contrast to Jennifer Stahl’s equally compelling Fairy of Darkness as she raged and whirled across the stage. Fairies Elizabeth Mateer, Madison Keesler, Isabella DeVivo, Jasmine Jimison and Ellen Rose Hummel each brought out the unique flair of their variations as the Fairies of Tenderness, Generosity, Serenity, Playfulness and Courage, respectively.

Mathilde Froustey, as Aurora, perfectly captured a sixteen-year-old’s buoyancy and delight. Her Paris Opera Ballet training shines through in the refinement and precision of her dancing, although the fiendish Rose Adagio presented snags as her four suitors (Benjamin Freemantle, Mingxuan Wang, Alexandre Cagnat, Vladislav Kozlov) supported her through pirouettes and promenades on pointe. The biggest risk lies where Aurora releases one suitor’s hand and maintains her own balance for an instant before taking the next one. It’s a grueling test of stamina for the ballerina, and Froustey’s normally secure balance on pointe during the hand transfers seemed uncharacteristically wobbly. The audience held their collective breath through the final back-attitude pose as Froustey fought for, and ultimately claimed, an ironclad balance that she held for a few exhilarating extra beats. It was fierce, plucky, and the audience loved it. The suitors, in their ensemble variation, were a pleasingly synchronized quartet of strong leaps, turns, and clean finishes. Also memorable in Act I was the Garland Dance for an ensemble of twelve (plus students from the San Francisco Ballet School), set to one of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful waltzes. Conductor Luke Ming led the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra in a sublime rendition, here and throughout the performance.

T. Chuvas (White Cat) and A. Reneff-Olson (Puss in Boots) in SFB's <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i> © Erik Tomasson | Courtesy of San Francisco Ballet
T. Chuvas (White Cat) and A. Reneff-Olson (Puss in Boots) in SFB's The Sleeping Beauty
© Erik Tomasson | Courtesy of San Francisco Ballet

The role of Prince Desiré presents curious challenges. There’s a minimal amount of bravura dancing, few chances to portray high dramatic emotion and action. This ultra-classical ballet demands, instead, clean movements with an elegant comportment and courtly restrain, yet without coming across as bland or disengaged. Vitor Luiz, as Prince Desiré, hit the mark just right. A supremely talented dancer, he was also an attentive partner. Through the Act II Vision scene, he and Froustey danced beautifully together, as she spun with seemingly effortlessness in partnered pirouettes. Cordula Merks’ solo violin voice was an equally affecting contribution to the scene.

WanTing Zhao (Lilac Fairy) in Tomasson's <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i> © Erik Tomasson | Courtesy of San Francisco Ballet
WanTing Zhao (Lilac Fairy) in Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty
© Erik Tomasson | Courtesy of San Francisco Ballet

Act III celebrates Aurora’s wedding to Prince Desiré, but mostly it’s just a repository for famous variations. Topping the list would be the Bluebird pas de deux, which finds its way into so many galas, recitals and competitions. Esteban Hernandez brought a soaring, gravity-defying energy to his leaps and brisés volés passages. Especially exciting to watch was Jasmine Jimison as the Enchanted Princess, an apprentice who already has the secure technique, stage presence and buoyant personality of a soloist. Alexander Reneff-Olson was a hilarious Puss in Boots to Thamires Chuvas’ White Cat; he never fails to excel at roles that require strong acting skills. Strong performances by Cavan Conley and Lucas Erni as cavaliers to the four Jewel fairies were another delight—both Conley and Erni are new to the corps de ballet this season. Not only were they dancing strong, they seemed to be having a ball.

The grand pas de deux between Aurora and Prince Desiré showcased both Luiz and Froustey at their best. The perilous, pirouette-into-fish dive sequence couldn’t have been more impressive. Luiz delivered high jumps with clean, silent landings and a rousing manège of grands jetés leaps. Froustey maintained her beautifully classical comportment, through pirouettes and piqués turns.

In this era that venerates the contemporary, it’s rewarding to see the classics faring so well, and San Francisco Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty is a winner for all.