"You can relax," promised choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan, making a joke at his own expense on the phone from London. "There's no sex at all in this 'Sleeping Beauty.' "
Best known in the United States for such steamy, sentimental ballets as "The Wild Boy," "Anastasia," "Triad," "Requiem," and the full-length "Romeo and Juliet"--all performed by American Ballet Theatre--MacMillan seemed a provocative choice to re-stage a ballet as formally academic as the 1980 Petipa/Tchaikovsky classic.
Yet if his own ballets have reveled in passion and violence, his new ABT version of "Sleeping Beauty," he said, is intended as "a reaffirmation of the ballet as a classical cornerstone for a classical company." The production will premiere in Los Angeles on Tuesday evening in Shrine Auditorium, with seven subsequent performances scheduled through March 8.
An ABT artistic associate since 1984, MacMillan was speaking from his home--assisted by his wife, Deborah, because his recent throat surgery and radiation therapy for a small tumor limited his voice. She relayed questions and MacMillan's whispered replies.
"There are all sorts of layers in 'Sleeping Beauty' if you want to find them," acknowledged MacMillan, discussing the work's dramatic appeal. "It's all there in the original fairy tale.
"Although this is a production that tells a story, there's a fine line between narrative and pure academic dance.
"I'm going back to my roots as a professional dancer," the choreographer, 58, said. The current production, he said, is inspired by the 1939 Sadler's Wells (now Royal) Ballet mounting that set that company's reputation as a full-fledged classical troupe.
MacMillan danced in a later, more lavish Sadler's Wells "Sleeping Beauty" that toured the United States in 1949.
"It's also how I received my schooling as a choreographer," he said, revealing that the ballet taught him "about structure, conveying a story and the importance of the ballerina."
MacMillan's version essentially follows Russian ballet master Nicholas Sergeyev's notation of the original Marius Petipa choreography--as modified by memory, time and a geographic translation from Imperial St. Petersburg to London.
He has retained a lot of the mime and most of the traditional choreography. What is new is a reworked Garland Waltz in Act I, the prince's solo in Act II (not part of the original dance score) and elements of the "Jewel" variations in Act III.
These novelties are all "in the style of the big set pieces," he said, and the staging as a whole is "the nearest to the original as we can get. It's important for Ballet Theatre to have that."
He acknowledged that his 1973 Royal Ballet staging was greeted with unhappy critical responses and survived in the repertory only briefly. That "Sleeping Beauty" (he also set a version in Berlin in 1967), he said, coincided with a decision to leave his then-artistic directorship of the Royal.
"There was not enough time," he said, "and it was not the happiest of occasions." In the ballet world, he further noted, success "has a lot to do with fashion and a lot to do with politics." He called this ABT production "an opportunity to go back again, a chance to vindicate myself."
ABT Artistic Director Mikhail Baryshnikov has offered MacMillan full support. Speaking in person at the company offices in New York, Baryshnikov affirmed that "MacMillan's relationship with the company is not a short-term one."
Although Baryshnikov had once considered staging the full "Sleeping Beauty"--he set and danced in Act III six years ago--he said he was happy to turn over the task.
"MacMillan has been working on this case for many years. We have strong views, but we agree on most things," he said.
"This is a Russian production with an English accent, but our dancers don't look like Russian dancers or English dancers."
Taking the point further, and despite MacMillan's concern with "original" choreography, Baryshnikov shrugged off the issue of authenticity.
"Authentic version of what?" he asked rhetorically.
"Step by step this ballet has never existed as it was in Petipa's time. A little step here, a little step there: I don't think it's very important.
"When I danced 'Sleeping Beauty' with the Kirov (in the Soviet Union, in the late 1960s and early 1970s), it was Sergeyev, Vaganova, Lopukhov," he said, naming three generations of amending ballet masters. "It went through a few hands. But the essence is left: style, structure, certain variations."
In the Soviet Union, Baryshnikov remembered, he had trouble getting a crack at the male lead role of Prince Charming (a.k.a. Prince Desire). "I was not considered a danseur noble ," he explained, "not tall enough or handsome enough."
He is not sure yet whether he will dance the role in MacMillan's production.
"It's an artistic decision, not a physical one," he said. "There are a lot of debuts and I'd like to be available. I teach sometimes."
Even though he has not staged this particular version, Baryshnikov assumes responsibility for the overall look of the company.
"All these last few years, I've been working on how people move in classical dance. These are universal rules which every professional-class company has to attain.
"The company is learning a lot," Baryshnikov said. "The dancers have an understanding of different styles and yet sustain a very good classical shape. These are certain aspects of our new face.
"I wish I could have a bigger company with a stronger corps de ballet. Some dancers fit like--" He snapped his fingers to complete the phrase. "And some take a few years."
Along with MacMillan, Baryshnikov thinks the time is right for "Sleeping Beauty."
"We decided the company is ready for the challenge," he said. "I think the principal ladies--our younger generation--are ready, and we have certain talents in the character parts."
MacMillan concurred by pointing out that although ABT dancers all come from different backgrounds, the classicism of "Sleeping Beauty" offered "a way of bringing it all together." It's also, he observed, "a marvelous vehicle for technical brilliance."
Baryshnikov and MacMillan conferred--and ultimately agreed, they say--on lead casting. On opening night in Los Angeles, Princess Aurora and Prince Desire are scheduled to be danced by Amanda McKerrow, a Moscow competition gold medalist just promoted to company principal, and Kevin McKenzie, a company stalwart.
Other Auroras listed for Los Angeles include Susan Jaffe, Cheryl Yeager (also recently appointed a principal) and Martine van Hamel, by now one of ABT's senior ballerinas. Other male leads include principals Patrick Bissell, Ross Stretton and Julio Bocca (a young gold-medal-winning newcomer from Argentina) and rising soloist Robert Hill.
The accent on youth is consistent with Baryshnikov's previous casting policy.
"I hate to keep a terrific dancer in the wings," he said, "although sometimes (that has) meant putting on stage someone who's turned out not exactly right." With Aurora, he said, "some dancers can develop their craft by doing it."
"I always like to see young people on stage with perfect bodies. But Aurora's youth--it's like Juliet, it's an illusion. Take van Hamel: She knows what she's doing."
ABT's "Sleeping Beauty" should provide the company with more than classical disciplines. It is tagged at $1 million in production costs, but, as Baryshnikov said, "full-length ballets are never a financial risk."
"Even a big critical flop like 'Cinderella' (co-choreographed by Baryshnikov and Peter Anastos four seasons ago) was one of our most successful financial ventures. We made a lot of money."
The new "Sleeping Beauty" is definitely grand scale. As the advance press materials have repeatedly pointed out, Nicholas Georgiadis' production boasts 200 pieces of scenery, 250 costumes, 50 props, 125 pairs of shoes--with 83 yards of fabric for each tutu.
"It doesn't make any sense to mount 'Sleeping Beauty' without a lavishness and grandeur," Baryshnikov said. "All those magic things. This is very much a family entertainment."