The newest production of The Sleeping Beauty links Houston Ballet's future toits past
I used to drift off during dance history class. I was simply more interested in the dance I saw last night rather than Louis XIV, the Sun King's first "first" position.
Of course, that changed during my seven-year stint as Houston Ballet's dance talk lady, a role I still get recognized for on the streets of Houston. I'm a regular Giselle-opedia now. But I credit Jennifer Homans' book,Apollo's Angels, for igniting a long-awaited fire under me. I had no idea ballet history was this full of politics, turbulence and intrigue. I'm just waiting for the network TV show, Balletown.
Tonight, Houston Ballet returns to Ben Stevenson's 1990 The Sleeping Beauty, a ballet that not only has great relevance to the field, but also to the organization's own history.
Houston Ballet had a handful of directors before Stevenson's 27-year reign. Anybody remember their names? I didn't think so.
Stevenson built the company that Stanton Welch inherited and has taken to even greater heights. Stevenson's Sleeping Beauty marked the company's move into Wortham Center in 1990. After the company wraps up this Beauty, they move into that beauty of a new building, Center for Dance, across the street.
Homans names SleepingBeauty as the first truly Russian ballet. The ballet wasn't an immediate hit when it premiered in 1890. Critics of the day considered it a sellout, low-brow entertainment. So maybe the plot is thin: Girl gets her finger pricked, then gets married.
Yet, it set a new course, away from spirits, half-swan women, and belabored pantomime. It was indeed a golden time for ballet, which is curious, because the art form appears to be on the verge of another major comeback.
The Tchaikovsky score is yet another marvel. It was his first and only ballet with Marius Petipa and Ivan Vsevolozhsky, director of the Imperial Theatre. According to Homans, Tchaikovsky was the first composer to see ballet as a substantial art form. Today, the score stands on its own, and continues to push dancers to new levels of musicality.
Stevenson created his Sleeping Beauty to celebrate the 100 anniversary of the ballet, yet, there are ties back to Russia. Stevenson based his ideas on the production he actually danced in at The Royal Ballet with the legendary ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. Legend has it, she could balance forever in the Aurora's famous "Rose Adagio." That version was staged by Nikolai Sergeyev, who turned out to be none other than Pepita's assistant.
Dominic Walsh has strong connections to Stevenson's ballet, because he's danced it many times.
"I do love Ben's version because of the strong identity of each of the characters all through out the ballet. To see him get up and demonstrate was amazing. There is a great moment in the second act when the Prince declares 'I love no one.' I always remember when Ben would do this, and I looked forward to my turn," recalls Walsh, now artistic director of Dominic Walsh Dance Theater. "Each of the fairies, Carabosse, Prince, Bluebird, Puss and Boots, they all had specific manners, and even Pas de Quatre had a certain temperament and elegance. And it all had to be impeccably clean and classical, yet with a freedom and charm of movement."
Walsh was so inspired by the experience that he went to create his own version of Sleeping Beauty.
Stevenson even brought Fonteyn to Houston to help coach for the 1990 performance. Although still in his teens, Walsh remembers her visit well.
"I have a funny memory of the little, beautiful, but frail woman screaming at us to stop clapping because it's bad luck.," he says. "She always spoke in a whisper other than that time."
Phillip Broomhead, ballet master and former principal at The Royal Ballet and Houston Ballet, danced in both versions in London and Houston.
"I was actually coached by Fonteyn for Sleeping Beauty and Giselle," recalls Broomhead, who is coaching for this production. "She was so charming and full of advice. I remember the feeling of being in the presence of greatness."
Broomhead found Stevenson's version true enough to the original. "The places that should remain the same, are the same," he says.
This time around, Welch has brought Stevenson back to polish the ballet. Principal Connor Walsh posted a poignant photo of Stevenson and Welch on Facebook with the caption, "It was a special day at the office."
Sleeping Beauty features sets by the British designer Desmond Heeley, still a force in theatrical design. Heeley designed the set of The Importance of Being Earnest running on Broadway through July 3.
"He came from the Royal Ballet, but this was his first Sleeping Beauty. He brilliantly suggests a location," says Thomas Boyd, director of production. "He paints with our expectations, rather than the thing itself. It's a revelation."
Former principal Krissy Richmond is full of fond memories.
"Desmond created my Carabosse tutu. It was one of the most exciting times that I had in Houston. Not to mention being near Dame Margot and watching her work," recalls Richmond, who now teaches Dance for Parkinson's at Houston Ballet. "We also performed Beauty in Los Angeles for movie stars."
The roles of Aurora and Prince are rites of passage for any dancer. Karina Gonzalez, Danielle Rowe, Katharine Precourt and Sara Webb dance Aurora, while Simon Ball, Ian CasadyJun Shuang Huang, the Prince, with Connor Walsh and Joseph Walsh debuting in the role.
Broomhead believes Sleeping Beauty's longevity may be linked to its challenge to the dancers.
"It's astounding that even after 121 years, it's still as difficult as ever," he says. "There's still so much to work on. You can never stop learning."
As Houston's treasured troupe stands at the threshold of the next chapter of its history, there's also a hand reaching back to Imperial Russia. So it goes in the hallowed halls of ballet, an astonishing tradition that carries its glistening past into its future.
Margot Fonteyn dances the famous Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty
Stanton Welch talks about the magic of Sleeping Beauty