Ballet Review: ABT presents a fit, trim 'Sleeping Beauty'

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There was a time when a full-length ballet was just that, hovering around three or more hours. But courtly pageantry and the clarity of a brise vole mean less to people nowadays.

New York City Ballet's George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein saw that. A longtime dream was to stage a new "The Sleeping Beauty," capitalizing on the collective clarity and speed of their company. Balanchine died before that dream could become a reality, but artistic director and Balanchine heir Peter Martins mounted a new production in 1991 for Kirstein.

Now American Ballet Theatre (the other major American ballet company) has gone down the same path, trimming nearly an hour (depending on intermissions) from the story about Aurora and her very long nap.

With grand scenic design and costumes, a large cast schooled in the most pristine techniques of classicism, ABT has made its reputation on full-length ballets, and this one is tailor-made for the company, as seen at Kennedy Center on Tuesday evening.


American Ballet Theatre presents "The Sleeping Beauty" at the Kennedy Center through tomorrow. Details: or 1-800-444-1324.


It's been a number of years since I've seen ABT. In that ensuing time, having sampled a number of regional ballets, it was satisfying to note that the general technical level of American dancers has definitely been raised. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is being carefully coached and nurtured in the ABT tradition, with alumni Terrence Orr and Marianna Tcherkassky leading the way, and others -- such as Houston Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet -- are building new audiences of their own.

But ABT still collects a large international roster, and it took a triumvirate of directors to nip this "Beauty" in the bud here and there: artistic director Kevin MacKenzie, former principal dancer Gelsey Kirkland and her husband, dramaturg Michael Chernov.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre presented this "Beauty" several years ago, with a glamorous production that originated at London's Royal Ballet and was staged with loving care by Janek Schergen. ABT decided to still be sumptuous but focus on the fairy-tale's relevant strengths.

So there were more angles and three-dimensional perspective in Tony Walton's scenic design, with some fireballs and trickery thrown in for good measure. Willa Kim covered a lot of historical costume territory, culminating in an over-the-top Rococo white and gold court, replete with wigs and heeled shoes for all.

Despite the presence of a dramaturg, the emphasis was on solo dancing, although the Waltz of the Flowers nicely served to introduce Aurora's suitors. But in general, audiences want to see Aurora come of age in "The Rose Adagio," see the youthful exuberance of her footwork, and they want to see her marry her prince in a virtuosic display of dance. After all, the third act is frequently presented on its own by virtue of its entertainment value -- who doesn't love a wedding?

Along with great dancing, ABT has always provided star power. Paloma Herrera, one of the company's reigning ballerinas, was all that and more. Her Aurora was built on confidence, a contemporary heroine with enough chutzpah to challenge not only her partner, the elegant and strong David Hallberg, but the entire audience.

Veronika Part was the Lilac Fairy, lean of line and secure in her balances. Her attendant fairies were mostly gleaned from the soloist ranks. They were given expanded variations and held a range of interest along the way, although Zhong-Jin Fang made the most of the Fairy of Joy.

As for the corps, a strong contingent of men were given some new opportunities, but the women's physical differences prevented a real cohesiveness.

It was more satisfying to see former principal dancers Martine van Hamel as Carabosse, elegantly evil in a truncated role, and Victor Barbee, a notable dance actor who made the most of Aurora's father, King Florestan.

The time seemed to fly by under the baton of conductor Ormsby Wilkins and an excellent Kennedy Center orchestra. But then Tchaikovsky's wonderful ballet score gave it wings.

Jane Vranish can be reached a .


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