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Flash Review 2, 5-13: Alert at the Ballet
Crackling With Debuts at the State

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2000 Tara Zahra

"The Sleeping Beauty" has the potential to be the comfort food of ballets. It lulls you with its cotton candy sweetness and lavish production values, its Disney plot and hummable music. The New York City Ballet production can be all the more lulling for its high technical standards. So much perfection on one stage can leave you feeling a little numb -- another tutu, another perfect extension, another night at the ballet. But last night, with almost 10 debut performances at the New York State Theater, the stage and the audience literally seemed to crackle with the kind of anticipation typically reserved for a much-awaited premiere. These dancers may not have remade "The Sleeping Beauty" anew, but it was hard not to be more alert, to feel more and to see more, as you watched these dancers try out their new roles.

Jennifer Ringer's debut performance as Aurora was strongest in the first act. Ringer was recently promoted to principal, and in the birthday scene she glowed with the vivaciousness of a girl who has just been crowned. Her flirtations with her suitors evoked a teenager with too many dates for the prom. The only moment in which you forgot you were watching an adolescent at her birthday party and remembered you were watching a ballerina were the most tense final moments of the Rose Adagio, when Ringer seemed a little too anxious to just have it over with, and quickly. While Ringer's dancing was confident and mature in the Wedding Scene, she and her Prince (Phillip Neal) were less convincing as lovers. Perhaps Ringer's success at dancing youthful invincibility made it more difficult to believe a sudden transformation to mature love. (Perhaps it's a flaw in the plot...) But given the choice by Peter Martins (who staged the production, after Petipa) to speed up the Tchaikovsky score (especially through transitions), this transformation was indeed abrupt. At times the two also seemed to overly anticipate the music. But Ringer once again shone in her variation, which she danced with subtlety and the anticipation of a woman on her wedding day, eschewing the obvious temptation to do a look-at-me performance.

Jennie Somogyi's debut as the Lilac Fairy was the real crowd-pleaser of the evening. She managed to be both serene and majestic in spite of the speed of the choreography, and seemed truly enchanting during the Vision Scene, when she appears on an utterly magical golden boat to lead the prince to his princess. (The prince, in a moment of oddly placed practicality, remembered to go back and grab his hat and horn before boarding the S.S. Lilac Fairy). Somogyi's angular body somehow gave her the authority of fairy godmother -- just severe enough, just generous and comforting enough.

Some of the real treats of the evening, however, were provided by solo debuts lower in the ranks. Most notable was Jenny Blascovich's excellent acting as the Princess Carabosse. Blascovich managed to actually give this caricature of evil some human quality, by portraying her as an awkward loner, possessed by a juvenile jealousy. Janie Taylor's debut performance as the Emerald Fairy in the Wedding Scene was also captivating. The 19- year-old dances with truly surprising maturity. The famous Tinkerbell jingle of the Emerald variation invites cuteness and showmanship, but Taylor danced with a combination of breathtaking quickness and agility and ethereal ease and composure. Finally, it was hard not to hold your breath for 17-year-old Abi Stafford, as she made a solid debut in the Bluebird Pas des Deux -- she will own the role more fully when she develops more of the birdlike nuances that make these variations most compelling.

Even without the extra charge infused into the performance by the multiple debuts, only the most resistant could fail to be charmed by the production itself. Sets by David Mitchell successfully suck the audience into the pages of an elaborately illustrated storybook, and even though the story is familiar, these snapshot sets also manage to be impressively original, particularly when we get to see the thorns and forest growing over the enchanted palace at the end of the 1st Act. Another high point in the production is when the white ball gowns in the wedding scene literally seem to blind the audience for several seconds with their brilliance at the opening of the third act.

My only gripes were that at times the score was overly speedy. While it is understandable to want to show off NYCB's legendary speed, and to cut some dead time from a very long ballet, much of the fairy tale enchantment was lost in the corps scenes (especially the bridesmaids dance, the garland dance, and the second half of the nymph dance) when it seemed as though the dancers were literally frantic, as if trying to catch a bus on an overly crowded street. It seemed like someone was always a split second behind, and you couldn't really blame them. Finally, even if it is a fairy tale, when can we finally do away with Disney versions of nationality and ethnicity in classical ballets? Do the princes really need to be caricatures of "European," "American," "Asian," and "African" men to tell the story? Does the "American" prince really need to wear beads and moccasins? In a night of fresh starts, it might have been nice to see some old stereotypes retired.

"The Sleeping Beauty" continues through May 21, with Ringer and Neal reprising the lead roles on Friday.

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