Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Diva alert at SF Ballet


'Sleeping Beauty' awakens

San Francisco Ballet in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Erik Tomasson
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If you rolled Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Gloria "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. de Mille" Swanson into one, you might have some idea of what Yuan Yuan Tan did to the great Rose Adagio in the first act of Sleeping Beauty last Saturday night when the ballet opened its 10-day run at the Opera House. Tan stopped the show, and the audience went berserk. The conductor had to bring the music to a near standstill while she held her balance, standing on tip-toe in the pose of the Florist Telegraph Delivery icon. She made us wait til she deigned to offer her hand to the next of her suitors, who'd come from the ends of the earth seeking her hand in marriage.

It was a high-wire act, and the sheer physical excitement was tremendous. Killer ballerinas have to be able to deliver rock-solid balances like that. But it's not dancing, and it's certainly not a way of telling a story about a princess who's been cursed and is fated to bleed to death unless her fairy godmother's blessing turns out to be stronger than the bad fairy's curse.

Everybody knows the story. Disney didn't change it, and he used much of Tchaikovsky's music, which is maybe the greatest score he ever wrote. Helgi Tomasson's production of Sleeping Beauty preserves the heart of this, perhaps the greatest ballet, choreographed by the master Marius Petipa for the Imperial Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg. Petipa used what was in 1890 (and in many ways remains) state-of-the-art technique. In fact, the ballet is more fantastic in its effects than Disney was able to achieve with all the powers of animation. The way the dancers move makes you believe they have superpowers. They run around on tip-toe; they hop, skip, and jump, skimming across the stage on the absolute tips of their toes, like dragonflies running on water. So when they confer their blessings on the newborn baby, you feel there is magic flowing into that child.

For all the opulence, we can all relate to the emotions involved: the bitterness of the fairy who was not invited is something any queer can feel a connection to. Anita Paciotti made Carabosse a beautiful Joan Collins meanie. The ballerina Muriel Maffre does both Carabosse and the good fairy in different casts, and it is a measure of her powers that she makes the good Fairy of the Lilacs more thrilling than the scary one. When Maffre's Lilac Fairy says "No!" to Carabosse, you know this child is not going to die.

Tiit Helimets, who's the most beautiful man to join the company in years, played the prince, his debut in the role. Helimets comes from Estonia; his way of moving is soft, ideal, and (though heroic) as sweet and full of longing as the music of his compatriot Arvo Part. He does wonders for Tan, and there was nothing willful about her vision scene. They danced the grand pas of the last act in glorious classical style. Tan was exquisite in her final variation, which is a kind of Russian folk-dance set on pointe; she danced it with great feeling.

SFB cast their opening-night show at a very high level, with principal dancers in many supporting roles; all the rest of the company supported them beautifully (the court ladies danced wonderfully). The orchestra under Martin West was uneven; the oboist forgot to come in for the bluebirds.

All of the fairies were top-notch, especially Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun, Sarah van Patten, and Molly Smolen, all soloists or principal dancers. The corps dancer Dores Andre made an outstanding debut as the Breadcrumb Fairy. Anne Chaitin, as the babushka holding the baby princess in the first act, was everything you'd hope to see in a doting old lady just crazy about that child. Her cup was running over.

SFB is putting out four casts for the ballet; each one is quite different. It's basically an all-star show. Me, I'd collect the set. Continues through Sunday.

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