Monday, April 27, 2009

Bringing back Beauty

Watching Boston Ballet's revival of The Sleeping Beauty (at left) on the Wang Theatre stage, it's immediately evident why Mikko Nissinen wanted to do this grand, traditional version once more before bidding the company's longtime home good-bye: it's just so damn big as well as beautiful. You get the feeling the soaring architectures of late designer David Walker's 17th-century sets may look cramped under the Opera House proscenium, and its stage might seem crammed with the armies of dancers he has costumed so opulently (see video below). So this may be your last opportunity to see Beauty in its full scope, with all the pageantry the Ballet can throw at it.

And it's worth adding that Beauty plays beautifully to the Ballet's great strength these days: its women. The female corps has been getting stronger and stronger of late, and Nissinen has steadily built a deep bench of leading ballerinas. You know, of course, the fairy tale on which the ballet is based: a charming princess, her thoughtless mother, an evil fairy, a good fairy who saves the day - it's practically a chick flick. The guys are basically arm candy - in fact, most of them are nameless "cavaliers." And alas, the legendary Petipa, on whose choreography this version is based (by way of Frederick Ashton), doesn't really give all his leading ladies separate, discernible personalities; their dances are based on technical ideas rather than characterizations. These cameos still charm, however, and require the cleanest technique to come off; luckily the fairy line-up on opening night included Megan Gray, Heather Myers, Melissa Hough, Misa Kuranaga and Kathleen Breen Combes, all of whom enchanted in different modes. Meanwhile Erica Cornejo was her usual flawless self as the benevolent Lilac Fairy, who manages at the last minute to ward off the worst curses of Carabosse (a nearly-unrecognizable Melanie Atkins) the spurned fairy who dreams up the old poisoned-spindle schtick.

The target of her wrath, Princess Aurora, was essayed on opening night by the peerless Larissa Ponomarenko, who can still carry off convincingly the quicksilver charm of a breathless young girl. True, Ponomarenko only just hung onto the role's signature piece of choreographic torture - a long freeze en pointe, back leg extended, while suitors spin her like a top; still, she did hang onto it, and elsewhere her dancing was always shimmeringly alive, yet etched with her customary gossamer precision. She remains one of the city's treasures; living in Boston and not having seen her dance is a bit like never having been to a Red Sox game. Her prince was Carlos Molina (both are in the photo above), who at first seemed slightly unsteady, but began to come into his own as the choreography subtly shifted from Petipa toward Ashton, who's known for his high leaps, pillowy landings, and purified lyricism. The Ashton style was probably best showcased by the famed "Bluebird" duet in the final, celebratory act (after Aurora has awoken). Here, newly-promoted dancers James Whiteside and Kathleen Breen Combes got to strut their stuff, and strut it they did; the choreography favored Whiteside in particular, who responded with some dazzlingly high jumps. Perhaps a kind of subconscious gauntlet had been thrown - dancers are nothing if not competitive - because upon their return, Ponomarenko and Molina were likewise on fire; but then disaster struck.

In his last solo, Molina launched powerfully into a series of high leaps with double-beats in mid-air. The beats became single, however, and then stopped; and then Molina ceased dancing altogether. There was an awkward, uncertain pause as he stepped apologetically toward the wings, made an embarrassed half-bow, and suddenly disappeared.

It turned out he had torn the plantar fascia tissue in his foot. (Ouch.) The audience, of course, couldn't know that at the time; but after only a moment Ponomarenko re-appeared, to complete her last solo, and take the arm of a new cavalier - Pavel Gurevich, calmly stepping into Molina's shoes without a moment's notice, as it were, for their final pas de deux. This included some frightening swan-like dives and catches for Ponomarenko, which I've no idea if she'd ever done with Gurevich before. She braved them with aplomb, however, and they came off beautifully - a tribute to both dancers, and of course the training and cross-casting that has become de rigeur at the Ballet.

Molina is now recuperating - although his injury is a serious reminder of how dangerous the physical extremes of ballet can be (and it seems choreographic demands are getting more intense all the time). Other casts and other dancers will dazzle in the remaining performances. But whether future revivals will have quite the grandeur of these last appearances at Citicenter remains an open question.

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