ArtsATL > Dance > Review: Atlanta Ballet’s "Sleeping Beauty," a vivid remake of the Russian classic

Review: Atlanta Ballet’s "Sleeping Beauty," a vivid remake of the Russian classic

It’s a story of rebirth, where love triumphs over evil. It’s a salute to the past, a fond farewell, celebrating a sparkling dance career. And it starts with news of an artistically prosperous future.

Atlanta Ballet’s performance of “The Sleeping Beauty,” which opened Friday evening at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, seems to come at a historic juncture. As in Perrault’s fairy tale on which Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet was based, where love and hope conquer fear and vindictiveness, artistic ideals trump recession fears as this company pushes itself unflinchingly toward prosperity. “The Sleeping Beauty” runs just this weekend, through February 13.

First the news. In a pre-curtain announcement, the ballet’s executive director, Arthur Jacobus, highlighted next season’s repertory. Works by four internationally distinguished choreographers — Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor, Jorma Elo and James Kudelka — will no doubt raise Atlanta Ballet’s international profile while bringing the city’s dance community a little closer to what’s current in the dance world at large.

The company will perform Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia,” which premiered in 2001, the year the Royal Ballet-trained Wheeldon, who’s regarded as the hope for the future of classical ballet, became New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer.

McGregor is also an Englishman, whose contemporary multimedia collaborations earned him a post as the Royal’s resident choreographer in 2006, while he also directs Random Dance at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. McGregor integrates technology into choreography, pushing the boundaries of what the body can do. It’s anticipated that he’ll lead the tradition-steeped Royal into the current century.

There’ll be more cutting-edge work by the Finnish-born Jorma Elo, who spent a good chunk of his career with the Netherlands Dance Theater under Jiri Kylian’s direction and is now Boston Ballet’s resident choreographer. We’ll see his high-speed, torso-twisting “First Flash.”

And, by popular demand, Atlanta Ballet will reprise Kudelka’s “Four Seasons” to Vivaldi’s well-known masterwork. Kudelka’s creation for the National Ballet of Canada, marked by simplicity and economy of means, helped make him that company’s artistic director in 1996.

But these ambitions for next season are built on historical foundations, and John McFall’s “The Sleeping Beauty,” while adapted for today’s tastes, preserves central portions of the 1890 Tchaikovsky/Marius Petipa collaboration, a tribute to the era of Louis XIV when court ballet was transformed into a performing art, the beginning of ballet as we know it. (Photo by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet, from a 2007 production.)

It was Petipa at his peak — an inspired work that discovered new dimensions of expressiveness within the strict formulas of the day and remains a foundation for generations of dancers. Almost a century ago, Michel Fokine rejected its conventions. Later, George Balanchine mined its inventive patterns — where music and dance organically merged — for his own plotless ballets. “The Sleeping Beauty” is also the test of a ballet company’s classical training.

Inside all that history, a young star, Kristine Necessary Loveless, danced the role of Princess Aurora, her final principal role with the troupe she joined nine years ago. It’s a little saddening that she plans to retire, at age 28, at the end of this season. Her sister Courtney’s departure last season left Loveless as the only female full company member who is a native Atlantan, and who trained at the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education from an early age. A dancer of extraordinary facility and stage confidence, Loveless performed last night with greater nuance and maturity than I’ve ever seen before.

This group had much to offer as they danced to Tchaikovsky’s score, performed by the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra under Ari Pelto’s baton. The costumes and set designs, largely the work of Elizaveta Dvorkina and constructed in St. Petersburg, captured Russian and European styles spanning the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Prologues’ Pas de Six — six fairies bestowing virtues on the infant princess — displayed the unique gifts of six dancers, notably Ann Tyler Harshbarger’s soft port de bras and steady pointe work and Peng-Yu Chen’s shimmering skitters en pointe to a hurried flute melody. And standing out from them all was Abigail Tan as the benevolent Lilac Fairy, whose long, gracious, sustained lines embodied the quality of mercy and who conquered all but the most difficult of her steps with soothing ease.

Contrast that with Tara Lee, whose evil fairy Carabosse nearly foiled the royal court’s goodness and grace. Entering on a clap of thunder with her grotesque, masked ghouls, she whirled around the stage, grounded and of the earth, cruelly plucking pins and wig from the head of Cantalbutte, the courtier who forgot to invite her. With baby in arms, she placed the curse, thrust the spindle upward triumphantly and cackled out loud as she departed on the shoulders of her minions.

Carabosse followed the child Aurora, and McFall cast his six-year-old daughter, Stella, in this role — a brief pas de deux with her dancing master, Miguel Angel Montoya. Effortlessly, Montoya partnered this child for whom overhead arabesque lifts and daring, spiraling descents seemed as natural as breathing.

Petipa’s Rose Adagio seemed intact as Loveless tackled one of the most challenging sequences in the classical canon. Dressed in glittering pink, her budding womanhood and growing independence were apparent with each successive attitude balance en pointe. With dainty hops en pointe and a bit of coquetry, she engaged audience and performers in her subsequent pas seul, by turns innocent, exuberant and ecstatic. An insidious blackish-green veil dropped around the princess and Carabosse as she pricked her finger, her death scene unfolding more logically than in older productions. The Lilac Fairy gently lulled the court to sleep as Robert Hand’s cooling light descended on the scene.

In the hunting party in Act 2, one might dream of seeing six to eight of Atlanta Ballet’s male dancers move in perfect unison — perhaps that can be hoped for in the future. Much of the long version’s Act 2 was cut, a well-conceived choice. McFall focused on the struggle between good and evil, pitting Jacob Bush as Prince Desire against Carabosse — he has no choice but to stab her with her own snake-wand.

The Kiss Pas de Deux seemed of another time — dreamlike, especially as it contrasted with the final scene — marked by a polonaise of courtiers and fairy tale characters telling stories within the stories. Bordered by three layers of lacy fall foliage in front of an airy, domed Russian summer palace, Loveless and Bush danced the final grand pas de deux in the finest performance I’ve seen by either of these dancers.

There’s far more to this production — a pinnacle of sorts, just as it was in 1890. The evening looked ahead to a dynamic upcoming season; at the same time, it celebrated the career of one of its most talented dancers, who rose through school and company ranks into artistic maturity. Kristi, wherever your dreams take you, it’s surely a promising future.

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