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A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose

Stay awake for Houston Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty

hen it comes to The Sleeping Beauty, I have to agree with critic Selma Jeanne Cohen: Do we really need three acts to learn that good triumphs over evil? Actually, there are three acts and a prologue; that means three intermissions and a running time of more than three hours. The show is like opera, only with more movement. The good news, however, is that Houston Ballet's current production is dazzling and gives new artistic director Stanton Welch the opportunity to spotlight lovely dancing by several couples in the company. So try not to let The Sleeping Beauty put you to sleep.

When it premiered in Russia in 1890, The Sleeping Beauty, which is based on Charles Perrault's fairy tale La Belle au Bois Dormant, was both magical and lavish. For HB's revived version, frequent HB collaborator Desmond Heeley created both scene and costume design, and no expense was spared. The castles are fabulous, the court is lavishly appointed, and even the peasants seem elegantly attired. And Ermanno Florio is at his best conducting the Houston Ballet Orchestra in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's spellbinding score. From the delicate harp arpeggios that introduce the fairies to the evil Carabosse's crashing cymbals to the melodic strains of the famous Rose Adagio, the orchestra is in fine fiddle.

The production features choreography by former artistic director Ben Stevenson, based on the original steps of Marius Petipa. As noted previously in these pages, the ballerina corps is not always perfectly in step together; there are too many levels of arms and legs and an occasional dancer behind the beat in the ensemble dances. One wants perfection from them in this crystalline ballet. But what the hell. Rome wasn't built in a day, and it may take the company more than a few months to get in sync.

Nicholas Leschke as Puss-in-Boots and Susan Bryant 
as the White Cat
Nicholas Leschke as Puss-in-Boots and Susan Bryant as the White Cat

Of course, we can't discuss The Sleeping Beauty without talking ballerinas. Princess Aurora is without a doubt the classic's most coveted role, but the parts of the Lilac Fairy, the minor fairies and the friends of the princess are also in demand. And even those seemingly drug-induced divertissements in the wedding scene are popular with ballerinas. (Really, why would you invite Puss-in-Boots and a white cat to the ceremony? We don't know, but they have some really pretty steps.)

Opening night, Mireille Hassenboehler sparkled as Aurora. In future performances, Julie Gumbinner and Sara Webb will both make their debuts in the role, and the recently returned Barbara Bears will also take her shot at playing royalty. The part of Aurora requires range, not to mention stamina; she starts off a happy 16-year-old, slides into death/sleep and then wakes up 100 years later to become a regal queen and marry the prince. The production features happy-birthday solos, loving duets and a pas de deux in which the wedding couple performs spirited turns and those gravity-defying fish dives across the stage.

Then there's that darn Rose Adagio. One of the most recognizable pieces of Tchaikovsky's music, the adagio should be both a visual and audible feast. In what is perhaps The Sleeping Beauty's most memorable choreography, four princes support and turn Aurora as she balances en pointe in attitude. But if it isn't perfect, it's painful to watch. And it was less than fantastic opening night. Hassenboehler's balance looked rock-solid, but each time she lifted her hand from a prince to create the over-the-head port de bras, her arm flashed up and back so fast she looked desperate.

Hassenboehler redeemed herself, though, with her soft pirouettes as she gathered pink roses from her suitors, and she showed her acting chops when she pricked her finger and then spun into the death/ sleep scene. She was coolly elegant and fleet of foot in the wedding pas, so we can't be too hard on her. Those Rose balances with hand moves are a bear -- but then, that's why the role is such a make-or-breaker.

The Sleeping Beauty marks Lauren Anderson's return to HB after a maternity leave. Opening night, she played the evil Carabosse, giving a charismatic, if a tad rusty, performance in her dark tutu.

The men's corps looked quite together. Welch has been building a stong team here. Simon Ball, formerly of Boston Ballet, did the princely honors with aplomb, performing some sharp footwork during the fast-paced beats of his solos. Another new import, Ilya Kozadayev, flew through the Bluebird section with some wonderful footwork. Subsequent performances will feature Robert Curran, on loan from Australia Ballet, and hometown favorite Dominic Walsh (see page 81). This may be the year of the boys at Houston Ballet.

 
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