I wasn’t supposed to write about Pennsylvania Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty. My husband and I were in Philadelphia for the weekend, enjoying our first few childfree days in over two years, and I thought a dance performance would be a nice addition to all the eating and blissful, uninterrupted sleeping we would do.
While watching, the words started coming, and I decided to write a review. Since The Dance Enthusiast mainly sticks to New York, I opted to throw it up here, mainly because I think what I said is an important and necessary critique — not just of Corella's The Sleeping Beauty, but of many story ballets. I also had a chance to see the next potential generation of stars, and I want to recognize them.
THREE MINUTES TO READ
Pennsylvania Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty at Philadelphia's Academy of Music.
Reinvent is often the word employed to describe Angel Corella’s mission with Pennsylvania Ballet, the company he has overseen since 2014. Corella has taken a scorched-earth approach to the task, releasing established artistic and administrative staff plus making big changes in the roster of dancers. He’s expanded the company beyond its Balanchine-heavy repertoire to include commissions by trendy choreographers and lavish classical ballets, both of which flaunt technical chops, all the better to secure what must be Corella’s overarching goal — to place Pennsylvania Ballet among the ranks of the world’s top-tier companies.
This season’s opener, The Sleeping Beauty, has been beloved since its premiere in 1890. It’s light on story (a miffed fairy sends a princess into a century-long nap from which she awakens after a prince’s kiss), but heavy on dazzling, over-the-top dancing. All this razzmatazz, though, can backfire. An audience needs little knowledge to recognize an overshot pirouette, a poorly landed leap.
During the matinee performance on Saturday, October 14, Pennsylvania Ballet showcased its future by presenting three members of the corps de ballet in plum roles. This appeared an apropos choice, seeing as the audience contained many children who could be Pennsylvania Ballet’s next generation of fans.
The trio dances with the determination born of seizing the opportunity. Therese Davis (Lilac Fairy) exudes silky grace while Nayara Lopes, as Aurora, sparkles with authentic charm. Zecheng Liang (Prince Desiré) can come across as blank-faced, smiles sacrificed for perfectionism. Yet his gorgeous port de bras add emotional texture even as his acting founders.
All struggle at various points — as do many of the soloists. This may be due to the choreography, which is by Corella after 19th-century masters Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. It’s tougher than it needs to be, requiring balances that linger, thorny sequences of turns, and jumps that must alight rather than splat.
Many of the bobbles and wobbles, however, seemingly stem from the dancers’ shallow, positional plié. A plié enables a dancer to press into the earth, so he or she can reach the heavens. Here, lacking pliancy and depth in their pliés, dancers must manufacture momentum. Instead of fulfilling the promise of a careful preparation, they rush to save their endings.
These technical boo boos do detract from Tchaikovsky’s grand, hummable score and David Walker’s opulent scenic and costume design. Even without them, Corella’s The Sleeping Beauty doesn’t cast much of a spell because it’s a relic: too long, too repetitive, and, most important, too dated to sustain the attention of a 21st-century audience.
At nearly three hours with two intermissions, the ballet circles around endless variations on only a few themes: skittering fairy divertissements, interminable promenading by courtiers, multiple pas de deux that lose their effect from similar-looking supported pirouettes and picturesque lifts.
The largest issue is Aurora’s passivity, which choreographers as diverse as Matthew Bourne and Katy Pyle have addressed. Bourne recast Aurora as a barefooted free spirit while Pyle moved the setting from a glittering court to the politically charged arenas of garment-worker strikes and the AIDS epidemic.
Corella’s Aurora is not a heroine for our times. Rather than earn gifts like eloquence and vitality, they are presented to her. Rather than developing her agency during the Rose Adagio where she stands on her own for brief moments, she re-steadies herself by leaning on yet another prince. At the end of her hundred-year slumber, she does little beyond realizing her potential as a princess—to be wedded and bedded by a suitable prince.
Obviously, The Sleeping Beauty is a fairytale ballet whose purpose is to entertain (which it does mostly), not to comment on or to reflect upon current attitudes toward women. Art, though, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It can — and it will — be interpreted through a contemporary lens.
So keep the brilliance and the beauty of classical ballet. But please give us a protagonist worthy of the kids who are watching without preconceived notions. If Corella can reinvent a company, then, I bet, he can do the same with an iconic ballet.