The original St. Petersburg production of Marius Petipa’s “The Sleeping Beauty” was the Disney show of its time, complete with moving set pieces, gloriously painted backdrops, half a thousand costumes. Premiering in 1890 at the storied Maryinsky Theater, the ballet came to symbolize the opulence of the era before the revolution.
In the first years of the 20th century, Petipa commissioned a team to record the ballet in Stepanov Notation. Their notations, which filled 221 pages, are currently housed in the Harvard Theatre Collection and look like stick figures drawn onto lines of musical staff. Ballet historian Tim Scholl, Ph.D., called them “a kind of hen scratch.” Nevertheless, Julie Kent, artistic director of The Washington Ballet, and Victor Barbee, her husband and the associate artistic director, set about deciphering the material with guidance from Russian ballet historian Natalie Rouland, Ph.D. Based on their research, The Washington Ballet offers its own charmingly modern interpretation of Petipa’s “The Sleeping Beauty.”
The ballet, set to a Tchaikovsky score, mostly tracks with Walt Disney’s version. An evil fairy (in the movie, devilish Maleficent; in the ballet, impish Carabosse) curses baby Princess Aurora to prick her finger on a spindle and die at her sixteenth birthday. But goodness prevails. The ballet’s Lilac Fairy — in the movie, though, a funny fairy trio — blesses the child so she will only fall asleep when pricked and can be reawakened by true love’s kiss.
EunWon Lee sparkled as Princess Aurora, with playful and delicate movements, evocative of a sixteen-year-old. She acted the part well, too, even in the Rose Adagio scene, considered the most technically challenging passage in all of ballet. Four suitors in breeches and hats court and spin her around; as she spins, we can see the whites of her eyes, her nervous glances back to her mother. Aurora is still very much a girl, Lee told the audience without words.
…in those certain scenes of grandeur, with the silvery fairies and the rich red velvets and the fish dives, the company offered glimmers of the way that first “The Sleeping Beauty” was, once upon a time.
Gian Carlo Perez, ever the storyteller, portrayed Prince Désiré. The subtle drama of his acting, his facial expressions and hand gestures, absorbed me even more than the dancing. Before the Lilac Fairy finds the prince and leads him to sleeping Aurora, Désiré and his entourage go for a hunting party in the woods. While his friends cavorted at center stage, Perez as the prince stood off to the side speaking with one of the women for a minute or two. What were they saying? Who was this woman? I could not tell you anything about the actual dance happening onstage.
Stephen Nakagawa as Carabosse made us all laugh with his miming, convulsing and jabbing at the air, which neatly contrasted the Lilac Fairy’s (Brittany Stone) gentle port de bras. Kristina Kloss’ lighting design complemented them well. A sickly green came across the stage when Carabosse entered with her raggedy minions, but a soft glowing lavender when the Lilac Fairy came on. Not unexpected, but not cheesy either.
Andile Ndlovu delighted as Bluebird, a guest of the royal wedding. When he jumped, he beat his legs like hummingbird wings — entrechat — while calmly waving his arms like an eagle in flight. Ashley Murphy-Wilson brought energy and confidence to her role as one of the Jewels Pas de Quatre.
Remembering the performance, certain scenes “flash upon that inward eye”: the chorus line of sparkling, silvery fairies; the hunting party dressed in crimson, burgundy, and burnt orange velvet. I can still see Prince Désiré holding Aurora in a fish dive, balancing her on his thigh. He holds her head just inches above the stage, her leg curls backward like the flourish at the end of a signature.
With “The Sleeping Beauty,” Kent and Barbee intended to create a ballet with elements of the original, as guided by the notation. But they did not intend to replicate the St. Petersburg production. “It would be the height of absurdity for a company of our size to try to reproduce what they did originally,” said Barbee, at a preview of the performance held at the Wilson Center last month.
The result is a charming ballet of Washington’s own. And in those certain scenes of grandeur, with the silvery fairies and the rich red velvets and the fish dives, the company offered glimmers of the way that first “The Sleeping Beauty” was, once upon a time.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
“The Sleeping Beauty” runs through March 3, 2019, at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Find tickets online.