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With a Kiss, Kirov Awakens Petipa’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’

TIMES DANCE CRITIC

A half-century of half-truths ended Monday at the Metropolitan Opera House when the Kirov Ballet danced the American premiere of its revelatory new production of “Sleeping Beauty” at the beginning of a two-week run.

No mere restaging, this is a meticulous reconstruction of the original 1890 Marius Petipa choreography, danced in reproductions of the lavish original sets and costumes. For those who consider the Kirov to be the font of classical tradition--and “Sleeping Beauty” the touchstone of its style--this 2-month-old staging represents a defining moment in the art: the homecoming of a masterwork.

Dance historians outside Russia long had their doubts about the authenticity of previous Kirov versions, but during the Soviet era the name of Petipa was sacrosanct in Leningrad/St. Petersburg, even if his choreography wasn’t. On a 1981 PBS telecast, for example, Kirov defector Mikhail Baryshnikov spoke of the company as “the home of Petipa” and what he called its “almost chauvinistic approach” to preserving Petipa’s choreography: “It’s ours, we should keep it that way and it’s right.”

However, Baryshnikov wisely added, “I wouldn’t put my head on the block” as a guarantee of authenticity and, indeed, after the fall of Communism, the company’s own researchers learned that as much of two-thirds of Petipa’s “Sleeping Beauty” had been revised beyond recognition, with the adaptation reaching its final state in the early 1950s. This version became traditional inside Russia--trumpeted to the world as authentic, danced and subsequently restaged by several generations of Russia’s greatest artists. Inevitably, the very idea of replacing it generated tremendous controversy. But this risky experiment changes perceptions of “Sleeping Beauty” radically enough to qualify as a milestone in the history of 20th century dance: reconstruction scholarship applied not to a lost work but a repertory staple subjected to severe abridgment and misrepresentation for nearly half its life span.

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The new Kirov edition, staged by company soloist Sergei Vikharev from the choreographic notebooks of Nicholas Sergeyev, who served as ballet master in St. Petersburg before the 1917 Revolution, runs nearly four hours. It enlists some 200 artists (including the Kirov Ballet Orchestra) and will be hotly debated by specialists for years to come. For the rest of us, it can be summarized in just one word: more. More of everything--more Tchaikovsky, more pantomime, more intricate steps within each dance, more fabric on each costume (longer tutus and tunics), more scenery (including a benediction by Apollo driving the horses of the sun), more fairy-tale characters (among them a child-eating giant), more decorative detail everywhere you look and, above all, more people.

The abundance of extra personnel gives even the most familiar choreography a whole new look. Petipa clearly liked working in units of 16: 16 couples plus 16 children in the Garland Waltz, for instance, quickly followed by the entrance of 16 additional women (two groups of four “friends” plus eight dancing violinists) who join Aurora and her four suitors in the Rose Adagio.

The steps being danced often resemble those of the Royal Ballet version that Sergeyev originally staged in 1939. However, the British lacked the resources for this kind of dance-spectacle and ended up combining roles. Thus, Petipa’s genius for choreographic layering hasn’t been fully evident until now. And, clearly, if this is what Petipa created, every other “Sleeping Beauty” ever seen in America must be considered a reduction. The only thing missing is the Panorama Scene--performed in St. Petersburg but omitted at the Met because it simply wouldn’t fit on the stage.

Only a great ensemble could put every other company in the shadow so definitively, and this one proves perfectly matched down to the last corps member in the last upstage line.

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Moreover, an ambitious new Kirov regime has taken a major gamble on the future by putting its casting emphasis in New York on young and relatively unknown principals--dancers who rose to prominence after Southland audiences last saw the company eight years ago. Names such as Veronica Part, the warm, elegant Lilac Fairy on Monday, or Daria Pavlenko, the buoyant, precise Florine. Among the men, the very youthful Anton Korsakov danced the Bluebird with sensational promise but, as yet, considerable strain in partnering challenges.

Most notable of all: Svetlana Zakharova, a tall, radiant, 20-year-old Aurora with mile-high extensions and spectacular pliancy but no great ease in the balance tests of the Rose Adagio and a tendency to look glumly prosaic in the Vision Scene.

Opposite her, the evening’s only certifiable star: Igor Zelensky, currently freelancing after five years with New York City Ballet and impressively at ease with all his acting, partnering and technical duties--including a last-act solo that represents the only holdover from the Kirov’s previous edition. (Petipa evidently choreographed no variation for the Prince.)

Mixing his own blend of passion and majesty, conductor Gianandrea Noseda led a vital, idiosyncratic performance of the score marred by occasionally raucous horns but boasting a special distinction in the suave rendition of the Act 2 entr’acte romance dominated by violinist Alexander Vasiliev.

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As yet there are no plans to bring the production to Southern California, but the Bolshoi Ballet has just staged its own back-to-Petipa “Don Quixote” and will perform it in Los Angeles and Costa Mesa a year from now. So we, too, will be able to share the extraordinary thrill of watching Russian ballet rediscover its 19th century heritage at the dawn of the 21st century. For the moment, however, the Kirov “Sleeping Beauty” is a singular achievement and very much a wonder of the age.

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* The Kirov Ballet dances “Sleeping Beauty,” “Giselle,” “Fountain of Bakhchisiray” and an all-Balanchine program through July 10 at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center, New York City. $15-$80. (212) 362-6000.


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