Woke Beauty

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday January 31, 2018
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San Francisco Ballet opened their winter season with the greatest of all classical ballets, "The Sleeping Beauty," in a thrilling show that continues through this weekend. This ballet shows grace under pressure; it became iconic during World War II, when the ballerina Margot Fonteyn emboldened the role of Princess Aurora by holding her balance, unsupported, it seemed forever, as one suitor after another approached. Fonteyn was the image of triumph, she emblematized defiance of the Nazis, as the bombs were falling all over Britain. The woman who, remaining feminine, is as strong as any man, rising fearlessly, irrepressibly, gracefully, like a fountain, gave courage to the British in their darkest hour and gave a model to the real-life Princess Elizabeth.

SFB is reviving Helgi Tomasson's excellent version of "Beauty," absent from our stage for a decade, with superb dancing from the corps, who are stronger than ever, and fielding five ballerinas in the starring role. Your reviewer has seen only two, Ana Sophia Scheller and Maria Kochetkova, both of whom were lovely, though they blurred the famous balances a bit. Reports tell me the others fared better with the balances, and the fan site "Odette's Ordeal" reports the audience screaming during Mathilde Froustey's Rose adagio. In flu season, one can't expect absolute top form every night. But you can expect music as noble as Tchaikovsky's to inspire dancers to extraordinary feats of delicacy, as well as of bravura. In choreography that is this much a high-wire act, yet calls for such humanity and awareness of the other people on stage, where the character of the dancer must shine through and illuminate the character of the Princess she is pretending to be, there are many acceptable ways of dancing the role. Carlotta Brianza, who originated the role in St Petersburg in 1890, did not do such things, nor is it likely that the Tsar would have approved - and he famously loved this ballet, going back to see it again and again.

Everyone knows the story of the princess cursed by the angry fairy who's saved by another fairy's blessing from the full weight of the curse: she will not die, but fall asleep, and be reawakened with all her kingdom by a prince who comes from afar and revives her with a kiss. Disney did not change it. The difference is, in live theatre you can't use trick photography or animated drawings. Nor, if somebody falls, can you do a re-take. The pressure of real time, real space, real gravity, is there from moment to moment. Consequently the suspense can become incredibly exciting when you see ballerinas as fairies running across the stage on the tips of their toes, hopping delicately or moving very fast. You can't believe your eyes, quite, since they're moving like dragonflies skipping on water - but there they are. They make their appearance in the first act, to give their superpowers to the infant princess. So when, in the second act, you see her defy gravity with equal aplomb, and in very slow motion, you get plenty of time to appreciate her power.

All the poets and painters and musicians of St Petersburg were out of their minds with joy. The exactness, the rigor of the technique are astounding. You believe in the fairies because they move like fairies. Marius Petipa created a style for fairy-movement out of toe-hops so they skim across the floor. Every movement is so exposed, and the underlying logic is so clear, a child can tell if it's done wrong.

Some complain that there's no suspense: the story is foretold. I don't think so. If the dancers pull you into it, and you give it poetic faith, then it's like when the doctor says you have a good chance of surviving this. Certainly during the AIDS era, when Tomasson's setting of the ballet debuted here, my predecessor at this paper, the sainted Keith White, found the ballet mirrored his condition. When the Lilac Fairy said, "The Princess shall not die," he felt it. He kept himself alive to see the premiere; his very attentive and appreciative review was the last he ever wrote.

Outstanding in this production were Esteban Hernandez as Friday night's Bluebird. His brisees voles had loft, lightness, and a heavenly ease of execution as his legs fluttered and his body flew the entire length of the stage in his jumps. Similarly, the night before, Jahna Frantziskonis flashed with brilliance as the Sapphire Fairy, while Hernandez danced her cavalier.

Most of all, Carlo di Lanno danced Kochetkova's Prince more romantically than I've ever seen it done before. I was completely enthralled by his performance. He had the same quality of youth who has never experienced this intensity of wonder as did the young man in the film "Call Me by Your Name." Who says we live in an era with no romance?

The orchestra under Martin West is putting out a glorious sound. Principal trumpet Joseph Brown was one of the shining lights of the evening, as his horn glowed with astounding beauty in the climaxes of the Rose Adagio. Unfortunately, West conducts with little sense of wonder or fantasy. The phrasing does not breathe or show nuance; it is not equal to the sound.