Boston Ballet’s Lavish ‘Sleeping Beauty’

Boston Ballet in the Prologue of "The Sleeping Beauty." Photograph by Rosalie O'Connor

Boston Ballet in the Prologue of “The Sleeping Beauty.” Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

The classic 19th-century story ballets are difficult to pin down. As a newcomer to dance, one can see a number of productions of, say, The Sleeping Beauty — all, according to playbills, with choreography “after Marius Petipa” — and be unsure which steps are the Russian master’s and which have been added or altered. Crucial variations in structure, costumes, and décor complicate matters further. It can seem impossible to know the ballet, much less whether one likes it.

I, for one, was unaware how enjoyable this 123-year-old work could be — though it’s widely considered the pinnacle of classical ballet — until a matinee performance of Boston Ballet’s current production, only the third I’ve seen live. Now I’m nearly obsessed. Although the quality of the dancing varied that afternoon, the experience on the whole far surpassed those I’ve had watching technically superior performers in New York. The Boston production fuses music, dancing, costumes, and décor in a way that feels lavishly grand and completely right. At two hours and 40 minutes, it’s longer than the others I’ve seen, but it doesn’t lag for a moment.

The production is a well-known one, staged by Ninette de Valois in 1977 for the Royal Ballet, which continued to perform it until 1992. Boston Ballet has performed this version before — in 2005 and 2009 — and this season it was presented at the Boston Opera House, where David Walker’s richly detailed sets evoking the 17th and 18th centuries blend almost seamlessly into the opulent Rococo designs of the theater itself. The costumes, by Walker and purchased from the Royal, are also excellent.

What truly separates this Beauty from others I’ve seen, however, is the choreography — most of which is by Petipa, with four additions by Frederick Ashton — and how the dancers approach it. The ensemble passages glimmer, particularly in Petipa’s Vision Scene and Ashton’s Garland Dance, where wreath-holding women dance playfully in circles and pinwheels. In these sections and others, the women of the corps execute steps with remarkable precision and musical acuity, an accomplishment made more impressive by the fact that the fairies of the Prologue are later reincarnated as peasants and ladies of the court.

Kathleen Breen Combes and Joseph Gatti. Photograph by Rosalie O'Connor

Kathleen Breen Combes and Joseph Gatti. Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

The leading performers are less consistent. As Princess Aurora, Lia Cirio improves as the ballet progresses: In the challenging Rose Adagio, instead of basking in her youth and the attention of her four suitors, her Aurora looks frightened and eager to end the proceedings as quickly as possible; yet she returns far more relaxed in the second act’s Vision Scene, where she attacked the steps with ease. Her Prince Desiré, Lasha Khozashvili, impresses with his noble carriage, but could show more passion in his dancing without sacrificing elegance. Dusty Button (who must have one of the best names in ballet) distinguishes herself as the Lilac Fairy with her strong rhythm and mime.

The final act, a series of divertissements celebrating the royal wedding, can easily seem frivolous after two hours of highly dramatic storytelling, but not so here. Ashton’s delectable pas de trois, danced exuberantly by Bo Busby, Whitney Jensen, and Seo Hye Han, establishes a lighthearted tone. As Puss in Boots and the White Cat, Patrick Yocum and Brittany Stone show impeccable comic timing as they prissily roll their necks and rub their backs together. Best of all was Kathleen Breen Combes, who danced as the Bluebird’s partner, Princess Florine. Her strength, line, and musicality were unmatched. While she danced, the performance reached a sublime peak.

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