Sleeping Beauty

The New York City Ballet on Thursday, January 4.

Could there be a more passive heroine than Princess Aurora, better known as Sleeping Beauty? She literally sleeps through most of the story, either as an infant or as the victim of a curse. That’s not her fault, of course, but neither does it make her a particularly compelling character.

The classic Tchaikovsky ballet, as choreographed by Peter Martins, drawing from the iconic work of Marius Pepita, remedies that by highlighting the Lilac Fairy as the story’s true heroine, even if she doesn’t get titular status. After evil Carabosse curses baby Aurora, the Lilac Fairy bravely counters the spell, downgrading spindle-induced death into a hundred-year slumber. When her spell takes effect, the good fairy safeguards the princess and her family by conjuring protective brambles around the castle. Then she finds a suitable prince, enchants him with a vision of the sleeping beauty, leads him to the castle, and helps cut away the thorny hedges. No wonder she takes center stage in the final tableau: the happy ending is entirely her doing.

With her regal bearing and impossibly long limbs, Teresa Reichlen (who danced the part Thursday night) made the Lilac Fairy stand out among the sprites, identically dressed but for their different hues, before she even stepped up to save the day. The choreography of her solo countering Carabosse leans a bit too heavily on pantomime, but Reichlen made mere arm movements gracefully commanding. The second act gave her more opportunity to shine as she approached the prince with agile leaps and confident pirouettes.

The prince’s grand pas de deux with his newly awakened beauty was impressive, but I preferred Aurora’s earlier pre-slumber dance with her four suitors. Choreography in which a single ballerina passes among cavaliers is often used to mark her as a vulnerable “fallen” woman, but Martins’ Sleeping Beauty makes the dance charmingly innocent. Jenifer Ringer’s gentle movements and sweetly childlike smile, visible even from the highest balcony, gave the princess a winsome air. In one memorable moment, Ringer held an arabesque en pointe while lightly grasping the hand of each suitor in turn, holding the pose without support in between and finally, beautifully, lingeringly, after she released the fourth.

My favorite portion of the ballet, however, was the wedding celebration, with entertainment supplied by an assortment of storybook characters. As he did in The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky pulled out some of his freshest, most interesting music for these character dances. Admittedly, the music for the White Cat and Puss in Boots seems unsuitably eerie when it should be flirtatious (if I recall correctly, the Disney movie uses that music to foreshadow the appearance of the evil fairy), but the leering reeds and sudden string accents do create a great musical effect, even if it doesn’t really match up with the playful cat choreography.

The most magical wedding number, however, is the pas de deux of Princess Florine and the Bluebird (Sterling Hyltin and Daniel Ulbricht on Thursday). Tchaikovsky’s orchestration is spare with a spirited piccolo solo, and the choreography matches it in tone, with Ulbricht’s leaps, his feet beating rapidly midair, suggesting flight.

From what I’ve read, the story of Florine is one of those tales of an unfortunate girl tormented by an evil stepmother. Poor Florine ends up locked in a tower, her lover transformed into the Bluebird. But the Bluebird visits her, of course, and the pas de deux depicts their joyful reunion. At one point they dance in unison with linked hands, Florine’s free hand resting on the Bluebird’s shoulder, and the sight was so lovely, Hyltin and Ulbricht’s steps so perfectly matched, the music so lyrical, that I wanted to see the rest of their story. Never mind the narcoleptic princess; I wanted to see more of Florine and her bewitched Bluebird.

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