Before Stanton Welch, there was Ben Stevenson, who directed Houston Ballet from 1976 to 2003 and built the company into a force to be reckoned with among ballet companies. Part of his success was in his remounting and choreographing of story ballet classics, including 1990's The Sleeping Beauty. Widely considered the most classical of narrative ballets, the fairy tale was originally brought to the stage by Marius Petipa with the music of Peter Tchaikovsky in the late 1800s. Stevenson's grand production stayed true to the original's formal qualities, but also made use of his signature storytelling and lush choreography. To celebrate his 80th birthday, Houston Ballet is reviving his The Sleeping Beauty, which runs through March 6.
Ben Stevenson's iteration of the fairy tale is wonderfully realized by Tony Award-winning designer Desmond Heely; his storybook sets and meticulously detailed costumes give the impression of a Rococo painting brought to life. Every color and texture of King Florestan's court is rendered in soft, wispy pastels, a daydream landscape where the appearance of fairies is natural and commonplace. His costumes are so ethereal in aesthetic that they do not just complement Stevenson's richly mannered choreography, but become an extension of it, highlighting the purity of these classical dance steps.
The February 25 performance of The Sleeping Beauty was made all the more magical by the performance of Karina Gonzalez in the role of Princess Aurora. Much has been said of the technical demands of this role, but it's also a challenging character to render beyond a two-dimensional archetype. Aurora doesn't have the compelling backstory of Cinderella or a defining physical trait like Rapunzel's great head of hair. In the Prologue, she is an infant, and in Act I, she is a 16-year-old ingenue on the brink of marriage.
Gonzalez, though, manages to elevate the princess to a compelling figure of young womanhood. Her dancing was ravishing, as it always is, but her interpretation of the role was thoughtful, intelligent and, most important, believably realistic. She's not a candied Disney princess, even though she does don pink. Gonzalez's Aurora is a heroine worth rooting for, and after Act I, so is Gonzalez herself. Her handling of the Rose Adagio, the iconic sequence that sees Aurora introduced to four princes while balanced on one pointe and promenaded by each prince in quick succession, was exceptionally controlled, maintaining Aurora's regal qualities even in this most difficult of positions. One of her signature traits is her unparalleled musicality, and she certainly did not lose that here even when faced with the Rose Adagio's severe technical demands. The sequence is a beauty, and is exhilarating when experienced live, but more so with Gonzalez at the helm.
Ben Stevenson's ballets are populated with well-drawn characters, and in The Sleeping Beauty there are many, but mostly of the fairy variety. Carabosse, the Wicked Fairy, was danced with aplomb by Soo Youn Cho. She made a nice foil to all the good fairy pitter-patter of the Prologue with her animated limbs and dynamic posturing. She's less malicious than she is indignant at her lack of an invitation to the infant royal's christening. Good and evil aside, it's rude to single out someone for exclusion, and Carabosse cuts a striking figure of a lady who won't be crossed.
And then there was Nao Kusuzaki as the Lilac Fairy, a lovely image of saintly goodness. For those who are familiar only with the Disney version of the story, the Lilac Fairy is the only fairy powerful enough to counteract the magic of Carabosse. It is she who alters Carabosse's fatal spell to a sleep enchantment that lasts a century. Kusuzaki was appropriately delicate yet magisterial in her variations, and offered a smart contrast to the toxic Carabosse.
Also of note on this evening was the corps, which performed the large-scale group scenes with poise and precision. The Garland Dance in Act I was a highlight, as was the Lilac Fairy Attendants in the Prologue. These dances are not to be underestimated, as they are what makes Stevenson's three-hour-long opus so digestible, even for the most restless of ballet-goers. Houston Ballet's corps never becomes mundane in its uniformity, but always pushes the choreography with maximum energy and vitality.
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The final act sees the joyful marriage of Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund. The royal couple and their court are joined by characters from across the fairy-tale universe, most notably the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, danced to much comic delight by Alyssa Springer and Rhys Kosakowski.
But the real star of this party proved to be Derek Dunn as the Bluebird. Dunn has been stunning to watch in both classical and contemporary roles, but his compact body is a perfect match for the technical demand of this featured part. He spends most of it in flight, and makes use of the rare gift of being able to give the impression of levitation. The clarity and precision of his dancing are coupled with a fine stage presence and charming magnetism. The fairy tale the character appears in isn't quite as well-known in the States as it is in Europe, but with Dunn interpreting the character, I couldn't help thinking that I wouldn't mind if the Bluebird had his own ballet.
And of course, what would a fairy-tale ending be without a mazurka? With a work that's three hours in length, one would think that the final sequence would feel like the final sprint in a marathon. It doesn't however, which is a testament to Stevenson's ability to absorb an audience into a story and keep them there. As far as narratives go, the Sleeping Beauty tale is about as bare as they come. The protagonist sleeps for a hundred years, after all. But in Stevenson's ballet, the stage comes alive with fairy-tale characters that feel less like archetypes than they should. Through dance, and his carefully designed variations, each character and scene carries its own weight. No detail is thrown away for the sake of escapism, but is used to create a fantasy that is as substantive as it is enchanting.
The Sleeping Beauty
Through March 6. 7:30 p.m. Friday; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org.