The CultureMap Review
A star is born: Walsh subs for Walsh in Houston Ballet's dazzling SleepingBeauty
Musicians have Beethoven’s Ninth, actors have Hamlet, and dancers have The Sleeping Beauty. The latter is the not only the epitome of the Russian imperial era in dance, but remains to this day the greatest test of strength, endurance, and artistry of any ballet company.
As evidenced by Thursday’s opening night performance at the Wortham Center, Houston Ballet passes this examination with flying colors, and it’s not to be missed.
Connor Walsh’s debut as Prince Florimund was greatly anticipated, and it was announced Thursday morning that he would appear in the role that evening. By afternoon, however, the cast list had been revised. Just before the show, press manager Shauna Tysor explained that after a bad landing from a jump, Walsh was injured though not seriously. He will be back in Beauty, but apparently not until next week.
Sometimes such last-minute disasters have thrilling consequences. Joseph Walsh, who joined the company in 2007 (he was promoted to soloist just last year), stepped in and easily dazzled the audience with his exquisite turns, powerful jumps, well-controlled adage and clearly expressive pantomime. He’s an adept partner, as well, and brings new meaning to the definitions of “Prince” and “Rising Star.”
One might have expected a nervous, hasty interpretation from such a young artist, but Walsh demonstrated great confidence and seemed even to have had fun with the part. I’m eager to return just to see him as Bluebird in Act III, the role he was supposed to have offered on Thursday, since I’m certain that his brisés vole (those terrifying little flying leaps) are going to be a wonder.
Princes aside, for me The Sleeping Beauty is all about women. The narrative might seem simple, but like any enduring fairy-tale, it’s filled with intriguing metaphors and deeply psychological themes. A princess bleeds and her family’s kingdom is doomed to a century of hibernation? Really, where does one even begin with that? And while The Wizard of Oz has a good witch and a bad one, respectively from the east and the west, Beauty has the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse, who duel over the Princess Aurora’s fate.
In most productions, the evil Carabosse is usually portrayed as a menacing hag, danced by either an aging ballerina or male dancer in garish drag. If I had to choose my favorite innovation by choreographer Ben Stevenson for this production (his version is largely patterned after Marius Petipa’s original, as brought to the west by Sergeyev in the early 20th century), it’s the recasting of Carabosse as a fly-in-the-ointment sexpot.
Amy Fote showed her provocative side on Thursday, and she is glamorous and scary, in a Black Swan sort of way. One can’t just dismiss this as an intermittent character role in the prologue and first act, thanks to Fote’s prowess, especially when she rides in on an enormous spider, its individual legs formed by the bodies of her henchmen.
Danielle Rowe is a first-rate Lilac Fairy, the character who seems to control most everything that unfolds in the ballet. Don’t forget, it is she who leads the Prince to give that all-important kiss to Aurora! Without her, the ballet is nothing, and Rowe brought a sparkling presence to the stage that gives the ballet its sense of control, compassion, and prosperity.
Sara Webb is a stellar Princess Aurora, not only because she looks like a gorgeous teenager, but also because she dances with a sense of freedom that epitomizes youth. Her Rose Adagio in Act I, where she accepts gifts from and is partnered by a series of international suitors, had just the right touch of innocence and adolescent self-absorption.
It should be mentioned here, as well, that conductor Charles Barker made Tchaikovsky’s score shimmer, all the while paying the closest attention to the dancers. Aurora has a series of difficult, “hands-free” balances in this particular scene, and I couldn’t help but admire how much Barker kept the whole thing on course as Webb took her diva-time to finish as she pleased. It’s these sorts of scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat.
If there are problems, the first one is similar to the issues I have with Stevenson’s Nutcracker. Perhaps, when his Sleeping Beauty premiered in 1990, Stevenson didn’t have many capable students to flesh-out such scenes like the first-act Garland Waltz. In my opinion, however, Beauty is yet another ballet where you show off not only your company members, but the young aspiring dancers in your school as well. The Garland Waltz should have at least 16 kids in it, and I won’t settle for less. Yes, I understand that it is often a production nightmare, but those hard-working students need to be on the “real” stage from time to time.
Secondly, the Act III should be a truly extravagant “cortege” of fairies and fairy-tale characters who show up to celebrate Aurora’s wedding. I don’t admire Stevenson’s insertion of a generic pas de quatre in the opening scene (thereby losing four important fairies), or his musical cuts, which create something more like the Reader’s Digest “condensed version” of what should be a thrilling finale.
By way of example, he’s taken the music for the gold, money, sapphire and diamond fairies and dumbed-it down to a bland quartet for townsfolk. The result is that some of Petipa’s and Tchaikovsky’s most sophisticated ideas are lost. The sapphire fairy variation was composed in counts of five, a playful way to reflect the cut of that gem. Dressed in blue velvet and tulle and danced by a solo ballerina, it has much more interest than the duet for two men that it is here.
Little Red-Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf are nowhere to be found, and that is a shame, especially since the story is currently making a cinematic return. Stevenson has his “Three Ivans,” a rough parallel to the Russian trepak dance in Nutcracker, but I’d rather see le petit poucet (Tom Thumb), his brothers, and an ogre. That particular dance is called pas Berrichon in the score, a dance alluding to a medieval French dialect spoken by the peasantry.
These aren’t huge problems, but it’s a little like Stevenson got lazy when he reached Act III, and this section wants a bit of re-thinking. However, Webb and Walsh’s series of three perfect fish-dives in the final pas de deux made me forget all about it.