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By Joseph Carman
“You’re inviting the presence of the Lilac Fairy, so turn your palms up,” says ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie as he demonstrates a magisterial circular walk. In a studio at the company’s headquarters on lower Broadway, he’s testing out choreography on the men portraying the fairies’ cavaliers in the Prologue of The Sleeping Beauty. In another rehearsal, the legendary ballerina Gelsey Kirkland guides principal Gillian Murphy through the curved and elongated lines of the Rose Adagio. Sleeping Beauty hasn’t graced the company’s repertoire in 10 years, and McKenzie wants this all-new production opening at the Metropolitan Opera House on June 1 to honor the integrity of the full-length classic and breathe some new life into it, as well.
“The first time I did a full-length Swan Lake, I did it alone, so I am grateful to have Gelsey for this,” says McKenzie. Kirkland and her husband, the actor/director/dramaturge Michael Chernov, have worked intensely with McKenzie on establishing a cogent new libretto for the ballet.
And why has Kirkland’s connection with ABT been reestablished after all these years? “Kevin invited us, which is always a good place to start,” says Kirkland. “We were invited to the party and not left off the list,” she adds with her characteristic drollery, referring to the insult that triggered the evil Carabosse’s revenge. The invitation makes perfect sense in terms of theatrical lineage: the role of Aurora was one of Kirkland’s great triumphs and, in fact, was the last role she danced with The Royal Ballet before retiring.
So how do you make Sleeping Beauty, a ballet that has been dissected and reassembled in numerous mountings around the globe, distinct and fresh? McKenzie recognizes both the strengths and the fault lines inherent in most productions of the Tchaikovsky classic, originally conceived by Marius Petipa and the Maryinsky director Ivan Vsevolozhsky in 1890. “I had cavalierly thought I was going to make ‘sense’ of it,” says McKenzie. “But I realized the ballet is filled with symbols and you have to accept them as symbols and understand that the audience will subliminally receive them. In trying to make sense of the story you can take the poetry out of it.”
Nonetheless, McKenzie approached the new production with a mandate for change on two fronts: Make a distinction via movement quality and costume style between the human characters and the supernatural world of the fairies; and put the Prince, who often reads as a cardboard cipher, on equal footing with Aurora in terms of their spiritual journey to vanquish evil. He also wants the full-evening ballet to be paced properly—slow enough for the audience to digest the story but fast enough to prevent a snorefest.
“The prologue fairy solos are in the Kirov language. Their port de bras is expressive of the celestial element,” says Kirkland, who, along with Chernov and McKenzie, pored over videos of many productions from Nureyev’s version for National Ballet of Canada to the Paris Opera Ballet’s staging to the Kirov’s four-hour, historically intact reconstruction. “In the grand wedding pas de deux there are elements of The Royal Ballet that are very simple and clear. Sometimes stillness is more expressive than something fluid. But if you want to express the spirit, you might want to use a more fluid choreographic element with the port de bras like the Kirov does. It’s a balancing act, and we’re trying not to get caught up in a battle of styles between the Kirov and the British.”
McKenzie thinks that Petipa’s choreography for Aurora’s 16th-birthday celebration in the first act (set here in a late medieval period rather than the customary 17th-century setting) is pitch-perfect. But he has made substantial changes to the second act. In their research into the origins of the Charles Perrault fairy tale, says Chernov, they discovered common threads in French, Italian, even Arabic tales that speak of a sleeping princess and the prince who is willing to die for her. “It’s a classical story about love on the highest level,” says Chernov. “One of the common elements is that the prince goes through fire. In Perrault’s story he sees evidence of all the other princes who have died trying to get to her. He is the only one who gets through.”
In McKenzie’s opinion, the Prince is not simply a troubled guy or a bore. He is more active in seeking out the princess than usual. After he dreams about her the Lilac Fairy leads him through the forest, where he is caught in Carabosse’s web and pierced by the wicked fairy, disguised as a spider. He has to fight her off, and thus his commitment is greater. “He succeeds because he believes, with the help of the fairies,” says McKenzie. When the Prince concludes his journey and kisses the sleeping Aurora, their spiritual relationship is consummated.
Carabosse, portrayed by a woman (Robert Helpmann was Carabosse in the original Sadler’s Wells version, and the Russian productions traditionally portrayed Carabosse as a man in drag), appears as the archetype of evil, but morphs conveniently into different forms. The flip side of the virtuous fairies, she feeds on revenge and jealousy. “She loves destruction, lies, mockery of good, is unforgiving, greedy for power, and proud,” says Kirkland. “Evil presents itself in many different ways, so that you think you know what it is, and then it changes into another form. She starts as a spider and transforms herself into the most correct, beautiful woman. Carabosse loves death.” As the author of the best-selling, autobiographical page-turner Dancing on My Grave (and one who has cheated death), Kirkland knows what she is talking about.
A surprise payoff of this production is that Kirkland is shedding her SOS policy (“stay off the stage”) to dance the role of Carabosse at some performances. (Former ABT ballerina Martine van Hamel will also portray Carabosse). “They put a gun to my head. I am a coward,” says Kirkland. “I didn’t intend to do the role, but I hope I can bring something to it. It seems that no matter how hard I try to be a good guy, I am in the final analysis....Carabosse, or as we call her in fun, Carabossy! And I love a theatrical challenge.”
A perfectionist, Kirkland has been known to work meticulously in the studio for hours. But McKenzie has carefully parceled out rehearsal time and is sticking to it. “I’m watching the clock on this,” says McKenzie. “There are certain times when I say, ‘This has to be done now.’ We can’t constantly change things.”
Of course, the real power of Sleeping Beauty in performance hinges on the believability of its Aurora. For any ballerina, that’s a tough assignment, says Kirkland, particularly for the current generation of dancers that she feels gravitates to one pole or another— extreme hyperkinetic movement or rigidly academic dancing.
“It’s an extraordinary feat, because the technique has to be theatrical—you have to have mimetic technique,” says Kirkland. “Your upper body has to understand not only the correct port de bras, but also how to capture ideas. The fairies have given Aurora all these gifts: sincerity, zeal, charity, joy, and valor. All of that has to be conveyed through a generosity of spirit. The dancer has to understand that she is the hope of the community, of all humanity.” (Is it any wonder that, in her signature role of Aurora, Margot Fonteyn symbolized great expectations of post-war Britain after enduring the Nazi blitzkriegs?)
Gillian Murphy, who will debut in Sleeping Beauty this summer, says, “What I find most challenging about the role is the ability to express the warmth and radiance of Aurora within the stylistic demands. Working with Gelsey is an intense and highly detailed process, and it’s fascinating to see how the role is very much alive in her body and being.”
Naturally it’s impossible to ignore the fact that full-length classics are still regarded as money makers. McKenzie hopes to reel in both an artistic and a commercial success. If Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet rate a 10 on the jackpot scale, he’s banking on this Beauty, with sets by Tony Walton and costumes by Willa Kim, to score at least a 9.5, if not a 10.
The creative team’s primary intention, however, is to infuse Sleeping Beauty with a keen sense of artistry and enchantment. “Hopefully we have come up to Tchaikovsky and the original story,” says Kirkland. “Because it’s an honor to try.”
The ballet culminates in the wedding scene, which takes place in what McKenzie calls “a theater in the sky,” where the fairy tale divertissement have been cut to expedite the action (Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, and other fabled characters appear as guests at the wedding but their variations are cut.) The Bluebird pas de deux is presented as a wedding gift to the royal couple, and Aurora and her Prince usher in the Age of Enlightenment, a triumph of the soul over darkness.
With Kirkland, an international star who plummeted into an abyss of addiction and has for several years experienced a rebirth as a coach and teacher, it’s not hard to detect a parallel with the theme of Aurora’s resurrection. So does this return to ABT feel like a homecoming?
“It does,” she says. “It does. It feels right.”
Joseph Carman, a contributing editor to Dance Magazine, is the author of Round About the Ballet.