A Grand Tradition

Taking pleasure in the fairy-tale grace of the old school.

written by Mary Murfin Bayley

In a city that offers a rich range of innovative contemporary dance, it is surprisingly pleasurable to return to the 19th century and the joys of the predictable such as are evident in Pacific Northwest Ballet's "The Sleeping Beauty."

British choreographer Ronald Hynd created this version of the fairy tale in 1993 based on the Royal Opera Production, which, in turn, was based on choreography created by Petipa in 1890 for the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Petipa. Mariinsky. The Royal. It is impossible to list the provenance of such a classic without dropping the big names of its great tradition.

The linkage to a grand past does not stop, of course, with the choreography.  Every time a Princess Aurora enters the stage to perform the delicate balances of the Rose Adagio, or the triumphant arabesques of the final grand pas de deux, the ghost figures of Auroras-past step onto the stage with her, including, most famously, Margot Fonteyn, partnered by Rudolf Nureyev.

Kaori Nakamura as Aurora in Ronald Hynd’s The Sleeping Beauty.

To these ghostly images of exquisite Auroras that will haunt future productions of “Sleeping Beauty,” add Kaori Nakamura.  How she builds amplitude in movement from petit battements to grand developpe is beautiful— in other words: from feathery touches of her toe to ankle, to a slow expressive unfolding of her leg to above head height.  The way she can build and crescendo a line of steps across the stage, her musicality, her ability to go from lightning quick to lyrical stillness within a phrase, all these, despite one or two moments of uncharacteristic tentativeness on opening night, make her interpretation of the role indelibly lovely.

"Every time a Princess Aurora enters the stage to perform the delicate balances of the Rose Adagio, or the triumphant arabesques of the final grand pas de deux, the ghost figures of Auroras-past step onto the stage with her."

“Sleeping Beauty” is not a ballet of haunting passion like “Giselle,” or of evocative poetry like “Swan Lake;” but it is packed with cameo dances and wonderful roles that can show off many levels of a ballet company from the smallest of carefully picked students on up.

The plot is the simple re-telling of the familiar French fairy tale. In a fit of fury at not being invited to the christening of baby Aurora, an evil fairy Carabosse (Olivier Wevers) casts a spell on the princess: Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die on her sixteenth birthday. The spell is intercepted by a good fairy and changed to impose, not death, but a sleep that can only be broken by a kiss.   

The Lilac Fairy was danced with exquisite softness by soft Carla Körbes (above) — her shoulders and arms’ roundness and morbidity hark back to the pure Romantic, pre-Balanchine style. 

When Carabosse sneaks a spindle into Aurora’s sixteenth birthday party, the girl snatches it playfully, pricks her finger and performs a dance in which she spasmodically shakes and seems to hallucinate to a woozy series of notes Tchaikovsky created for this moment (surely a pre-cursor to the frantic spasms and face scrubbing so current right now in some dance).

The Lilac Fairy puts all the rest of the court to sleep too. A hundred years later she finds the wistful Prince Florimund and with the help of a dream version of Aurora, convinces him to follow her. Lucien Postlewaite and Nakamura brought to this “Vision” duet a beautiful tenderness. 

Some of the finesse and freshness of the dancing throughout must be attributed to retired ballerina Annette Page, who with Hynd, her husband of many years, came to Seattle to work on details.

Olivier Wevers as the evil Carabosse and Carla Körbes as the Lilac Fairy

By Act Three the story is wrapped up and put away so the rest of the evening can be dedicated to pure celebratory dancing and music. Masked fairy tale characters, Puss n Boots (Jordan Pacitti), White Cat (Lesley Rausch), the Wolf (Barry Kerollis) and Little Red Riding Hood (Leanne Duge), all straight from the British Pantomime tradition, earned their laughs.  Mara Vinson and Jonathan Porretta in the Bluebird pas de Deux whipped the audience to a frenzy of cheers and applause. Porretta in his batterie, a series of small and large jumps in which the pointed feet beat back and forth at the ankle too rapidly for the eye to see, appeared to hover just above the stage like a hummingbird. 

The ballet closed with Postlewaite and Nakamura in the grand pas de deux.  Here the pleasure of the familiar really kicked in as the audience, understanding the sequence of alternating and intensifying solos and duets, got caught up in the excitement. Fortunately the 19th century choreographers figured out a long time ago that these dances in accelerating alterations are irresistible and they build in a finale pose for each sequence so that we can clap. 

"The Sleeping Beauty" continues at Pacific Northwest Ballet through February 14, 2010.

Photography by Angela Sterling