To maniacal ballet lovers, true ballerinas have a rare essence that sets them apart. Maybe it's their aura of feminine purity or the quintessence of classical technique. Perhaps it's the way their feet whisper on pointe. Or how they float through all manner of arabesque and pirouette. The novice spectator can spot it as easily as the veteran.
It's hard to say what was most enchanting about Houston Ballet's Saturday-evening performance of The Sleeping Beauty -- the raw essence of Russian icon and famed Bolshoi dancer Nina Ananiashvili or Desmond Heeley, whose mesmerizing costumes and scenic design marry ornate Louis XIV-era style and decor with the shimmering romance of a timeless fairy tale.
In her debut as Houston Ballet principal, the Georgia Republic-born Ananiashvili exuded magic on the stage of the Wortham Center's Brown Theater. She tackled the technically difficult role of Princess Aurora with ease. Her command was so confident that some dancers appeared noticeably less sure in step. Counterpoised with the Russian-trained ballerina, a few soloists offered rigid, less-fluid arabesques amid thuds of plodding footwork. A number of ensembles struggled for unison, matching heavy feet with Ananiashvili's delicate line.
Running three hours with three intermissions, the Ben Stevenson production is based on Marius Petipa's 1890 world premiere at St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater. Tony Award-winner Heeley, who introduced his sets here in 1990, features massive gossamer backdrops simulating the king's court and nearby forest. There are exploding balls of smoke, rich 16th- and 17th-century French costumes and wigs, dancing cats and long-tailed monsters with hideous amphibian helmets a la Jules Verne.
The story, derived from the French tale by Charles Perrault, isn't so different from the story American kids learned from the Brothers Grimm. King Florestan and his queen are enjoying festivities for the christening of their baby daughter, Aurora. The wicked fairy Carabosse dons a disguise and slips in, fuming because she wasn't invited. Suddenly she reveals her true identity and pronounces a curse on Aurora, prophesying that the beautiful princess will grow up, prick her finger and die. But the good Lilac Fairy comes to the rescue and diminishes the curse. Instead of death, the princess will sleep for 100 years until awakened by a prince.
As the cursed Aurora, Ananiashvili is fluent in the difficult dance vocabulary and language Russian dancers are weaned on. After a lengthy prologue, Aurora enters the Garden Palace at age 16 and begins to choose a husband from among four princes. This difficult sequence -- the "Rose Adagio" -- is more than just diversion; it is narrative executed through dance, not pantomime. Each prince presents himself as a suitor, dances with the princess and gives her a rose.
As "Adagio" ends, Ananiashvili balances one foot on pointe, extending her other leg sideways. She holds it that way as each prince twirls her slowly in a circle. With the strength of a virtuoso, she keeps perfect balance as one partner releases her hand and the next one grasps it. Another solo shows her firing a rapid circle of fouettes with impeccable ease. To the tune of her signature violin in a third solo, she nearly tiptoes backward on pointe. That ability raised the audience's delight to bursting and moved a few in the audience to their feet.
Generally the rest of the company's solos and ensembles are playfully diverting though technically inconsistent. The six cavaliers' first ensemble features impressive pyrotechnics but is disappointingly unsynchronized. Then comes a series of solos by several fairies who present Aurora with a christening gift. Choreographically, each of these dances poses a different academic challenge. As Fairy Beauty, Sally Rojas shows perfect timing and graceful coordination. The four who followed -- Kathryn Warakomsky, Julie Gumbinner, Shirley Sastre and Dawn Scannell -- are impressive but technically short of the mark.
When Aurora and Prince Florimund marry in the last act, a lengthy dance diversion features impressive performances by several principals. Barbara Bears and Julie Gumbinner pair with Yin Le and Dominic Walsh. Gumbinner, Le and Walsh performed supremely during last summer's opening of Swan Lake. The foursome here comes through in an alluring pas de quatre, couples synchronized and perfectly timed. Following this group is a lengthy set of duets and solos by Scannell as Princess Florise and Parren Ballard as the Bluebird. Scannell's toe shoes squeaked to distraction during every number. Her range of movement is fairly vast, but the transition between steps is often rigid and self-conscious, drawing undue attention to the difficulty of her executions. Ballard's solos are satisfying, especially his proclivity with the grand jete. But the gymnastic bent of these two dancers seemed a little out of place in this particular ballet.
Last Saturday the company's dramatic prowess seemed to surpass its technical virtuosity. In a story that pits good against evil, Aurora's delicate purity is nicely offset by Susan Cummins's vengeful, cavorting Carabosse. Flanked by her green monster-henchmen, Cummins works her magic once again as a bad dancing beauty, saucily strutting her witchhood. During the prologue, her dark allure overshadows the constancy of principal Lauren Anderson's Lilac Fairy. With white skin glowing in mostly moonlit scenes, Cummins conjures the haunting image of her role as vampire wife in Dracula.
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Even Stevenson's choreography elegantly distinguishes between Aurora's goodness and Carabosse's evil. As Carabosse turns herself into a monster in the second act, she hurls herself at the henchman, weakly executing a series of twirls and appearing to fall as she is thrown from one ogre to the next. That parody of Princess Aurora's classical perfection is a pleasing contrast.
Without Ananiashvili, Mireille Hassenboehler as the White Cat and David Makhateli as Puss-in-Boots would highlight the performance. Clad in feline helmets, they pussyfoot their way through a slew of difficult steps, including numerous side kicks of the pas de chat ("step of the cat").
A century from now, crowds will clamor for Tchaikovsky's masterful melodies. But it's Heeley's touches of animal magnetism in the White Cat and green monsters that'll keep audiences coming back for more.
The Sleeping Beauty continues March 26 and 28 at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. (713)227-