On February 25th and 26th, Alexandra Ballet produced ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, the classic tale of the birth of a Princess blessed by good-willed fairies and cursed by the evil Fairy angered by not being invited to the christening to prick her finger on her 16th birthday, a jab that would have resulted in her death were it not for the saving grace and sleep-inducing power of the Lilac fairy and the kiss of a handsome prince who then marries her in a grand spectacle of entertainment and dancing.
Luckily, one fairy that they did invite was me, the Lilac Fairy’s older cousin, the wistful wisteria Fairy, bringing my gift of memory to review the show. Sitting next to me was one Jessica Ruhlin, who danced in the two previous versions in 1998 and 2004. This is the third production of The Sleeping Beauty that I’ve now seen from Ms. A and it was interesting to see how the cast changes within the framework of the cast of characters.
I love ballet for the hard work, the beauty, the music, the tutus,the virtuosity, but mostly, I love ballet because it is a fragile thing, well-cared for and protected by a dedicated club of specialists– much like Princess Aurora and her band of protective fairies.
Ballet is so easily corrupted without proper attention to the smallest details. Ms. A never loses the true classical touch and intention. Ballet is so much more than the ability to lift your leg or turn, it is the facial expressions, the grace of HOW the movement is carried out.
More and more I am finding ballerinas that are trying so hard to keep up with contemporary demands of ballet (higher jumps, more turns, and complex movement) that the classical touch is evaporating from productions like ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, productions that really need it to properly convey the choreography and characters.
For example, the role of princess Aurora is that of the most sheltered, protected, naive, beautiful, and sweet little royal you can image. She can be vivacious yes, but never aggressive and I’ve seen too many Aurora’s that employ too much attack in their movement. The clues are in the choreography– just look at the Rose Adagio and the incredible balance required in the multiple attitude promenades with the cavaliers. Aurora herself is perfect, precise, and a little restrained. This doesn’t mean slow or limited. The dancer should still have great extension and bright quick allegro, but the upper body should be carried with exquisite finesse. Tradition, along with technique, shouldn’t be forgotten.
The dancers from Alexandra Ballet executed their various roles with both tradition and technique, invoking both the history of ballet and the history of this particular ballet from Ms. A. The tradition of ballet has passed down through the generations, like many of the costumes.
It’s interesting also to see the passing down of parts- the role of the Queen done before by the former Ballet Mistress with the establishment and my current boss at COCA, could have been done by the 1998 Princess Aurora, one Chrsita Bross who is in truth a new mother now herself.
The current Ballet Mistress, Cici Houston, graced the stage only at the curtain call while in the 2004 production,she played the role of the Wicked Carabosse Fairy, a role taken now by Andrea Lucas. Lucas was a mere paige in the 98 production and rose to power in the Kingdom, appearing as the Lilac Fairy in 04. I suppose power corrupts because of her sudden character change, but don’t ask me; I’m the fairy of memory not intuition. I will say that it was lovely to see that even if she has converted to the dark side and is no longer a good fairy, her technique and performance quality were beyond good. Lucas was the stand-out professional of the show, a credit to the traditions of ballet, everything that Ms. A has done and continues to do so well, and to herself.
Another great facet of the show was the display of promising youths in the Garland Waltz. There were a lot of natural performers in the bunch, and like any garden, they looked pruned to perfection in terms of spacing and cohesion. If memory serves me correctly, and it always does, that choreography hasn’t changed since the days when it was dancers such as Meredith Ruben Daniels and Emily Stephanitch in the role. The garlands with the flowers look new though, those kinds of things tend to fall apart with time, unlike certain lucky friendships. (Both of these ladies are now teachers- Daniels is a mom-to-be and Stephanitch teachers at the Joffrey School in Chicago. She also taught Ruhlin everything she knows about driving so blame her for all the traffic indiscretions)
Certain casting moves remained the same over the generations- The White Cat has always been a long-legged beauty, and the Enchanted Princess is usually petite and radiant and this year was no different. Very few people reach the level of idolatry that the original- Becky Alaly– inspired in the watchful eyes of a certain young carabosse attendent, and it is hard to compare anyone to the brilliance of Consuelo Williams and Megan Buckley, but they must have left a little enchantment in the tutu because this year’s performer, Sarah Elizabeth Agan, had the same sparkle in her performance, luscious port de bras, and quick yet light allegro. (Buckley is now a professional dancer with Portland Ballet and Alaly has her own company in New York)
The role of Bluebird has been done spectacularly first by Rodney Hamilton, then by Pete Lay as a guest from Butler University. Another Butler dancer, Garrett Glassman, appeared in the recent production and was every bit the technical virtuoso that the role demands. (Lay went on to dance with the Louisville Ballet Company and is now in law school- while Hamilton attended the Juiliard Conservatory and recently dazzled St. Louis audiences in a performance with the Afro-Cuban infused Ballet Hispanico. I guess that’s one songbird that flew south)
How many talented hard-working dancers have passed on these costumes and learned this choreography, and where are they all now? While watching the show, I remember them all– those dancers like Jennifer Reed, and Jennifer Deckert, and Lindsay Kelly Stewart that everyone wanted to be, to the ones like the newest Lilac Fairy facing down the former Lilac Fairy turned-Carabosse while the former-carabosse watches and guides from the wings. This production is rich not just in the memory and tradition of ballet in general, but personal histories at work. Memory is truly a gift that everyone, not just Princess Aurora, should be given. Watching a performance, especially this one from Alexandra Ballet, is indeed that.
And if memory ever starts to slip, then the Technology Fairy can step in with his/her camera. (Thanks to the very talented Zach Hoesly for access to the photo albums and for contributing such gorgeous images of rehearsals in the program)