The litmus test for a successful story ballet often lies in the choreographer's ability to hold onto the thread of the tale and let it pilot the dance. In this regard, the Houston Ballet's current production of The Sleeping Beauty has to be judged a considerable success. Ballet Artistic Director Ben Stevenson has crafted a Sleeping Beauty that both captures the fairy tale's romantic suspense and illustrates the innocence and delicacy of Aurora, the beauty of the ballet's title. The Sleeping Beauty twines all the best themes in fairy tales into one: the power of good over evil, romantic love and enough magic to put a royal court to sleep for 100 years.
As the lights come up on the prologue, what first appears as an opaque scrim becomes transparent to reveal the court of Aurora's father, King Florestan. Desmond Heeley's set and costumes are in soft, autumnal colors, and the effect is warm and elegant, particularly with the addition of another transparent scrim behind the dancers. It was behind the second scrim that, at last Saturday's performance, Lauren Anderson first appeared as the Lilac Fairy in what becomes a tableau vivant for the second and third acts. Anderson danced a regal and gracious Lilac Fairy; the lavender hue of her costume suited her beautifully, and her strength and precision were well matched with the stately choreography Stevenson created for the role.
Because Aurora is an infant when the ballet begins, it's the roles of the Lilac Fairy and the evil fairy, Carabosse, that tie the tale together. Carabosse, danced Saturday by Susan Cummins, was wicked and sharp, flinging about her attendant frog men when they fawned over her too ambitiously. Cummins is decidedly snakelike, contracting back into her spine and casting spells with a nasty laugh and pointy fingers. There is, of course, no chance of story without conflict, and Stevenson's Carabosse proves the right blend of dark humor and pure evil, so much so that my young companion leaned over to whisper the question: "When does the witch come back on?"
The witch did come back on, but not before Rachel Beard made her first appearance as the innocent Aurora at the start of Act One. The event is her 16th birthday celebration, an occasion at which she is courted by four suitors and dances the "Rose Adagio," one of the most often performed pieces in classical choreography. Beard was a cameo-perfect Aurora, technically sharp and characteristically innocent as each prince offered a bouquet and a proposal. In any successful work, there is a kernel that captures the potential of the entire piece, and the kernel in Stevenson's Sleeping Beauty is when Aurora pricks her finger on a hidden spindle. At first, Beard danced bravely, and appeared to have fought the poison off. When she began to stiffen and fall, it was with genuine kindness that Anderson put her, and the royal court, to sleep. The moment was handled with a pleasing blend of lively movement and considerable acting from Anderson, Beard and the rest of the court.
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The second act opens on a playful folk dance variation, which triumphs where many other productions are dull. The members of Prince Florimund's hunting party create a dancing chain that spins itself out and ends by depositing the Prince alone in the forest. Like a promise that unexpectedly comes true, Beard appeared as an apparition behind the forest scrim, beckoning the Prince, danced Saturday by Phillip Broomhead. Broomhead was gentlemanly as Prince Florimund, and his dream pas de deux with Aurora was shyly flirtatious. As Beard turned bashfully away from her suitor, Broomhead pursued her apparition, inspired by her legendary beauty. Some of the ballet's most wonderful corps work appears in this sequence. The Lilac Fairy's attendants in particular were spritely and ephemeral, with their quick steps and their repeating shapes of complex circles and flowerlike configurations.
Stevenson has a large opportunity for humor in the third act's vignette sequences, and he uses it delightfully. Of the fairy tale characters who appear to dance before the prince and princess, the audience's favorite was clearly Puss-in-Boots, danced Saturday by Damien Schwiethale, and the White Cat, danced by Barbara Bears. The cat sequence brings a welcome bit of sexual tension after Aurora's necessary chasteness -- Puss attempts to stroke the White Cat's shapely leg, which warrants a slap on the hand and on the head. There was more fine dancing from Jose Herrera (who is a wonderful jumper) as Bluebird and his partner, Princess Florise, danced by Kathryn Warakomsky. Warakomsky fluttered her small hands and the audience believed, without hesitation, that she was transformed into a bird.
Stevenson's The Sleeping Beauty delivers everything the fairy tale promises in a tight artistic package. There's a loving attention to detail that can be traced back to the choreographer's special attachment to this ballet -- it was the first full-length work he danced as a young member of the Royal Ballet, and it is one that he choreographed on tight notice and with no small amount of trouble. The result is a beautiful production, expertly and soulfully danced, and one that lasts like a long dream.
The Sleeping Beauty runs through June 16 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 227-