San Francisco Ballet opened its season last week with performances of the classical masterpiece of Imperial Russian ballet, The Sleeping Beauty. The company, showcasing many of its young principal dancers during the run, which continues to February 7, showed that this quintessential classical ballet still ignites the imagination, presenting a soul-lifting mix of charm and grandeur.
The ballet was choreographed by Marius Petipa to Tchaikovsky’s score in 1890, and SF Ballet’s version is a revision by the company’s Artistic Director, Helgi Tomasson. The lineaments and steps of Petipa’s original choreography are easily recognizable, and are enhanced by Tomasson’s own choreographic preferences. Petipa, the Frenchman who set the bar for Russian ballet during his 30-year tenure (1871–1903) as First Ballet Master at St Petersburg’s Imperial Theaters, created a blend of ballet that combined the grace and romanticism of the 19th-century French schools with the technical virtuosity of the Italian. Although Tomasson is an undeniably contemporary choreographer, he supports a choreographic vision that combines a deeply romantic lyricism with technically precise athleticism.
The difference lies in their approach to content. The Sleeping Beauty is a courtly ballet set in the fanciful world of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, and these are vital aspects of the music and the choreography. Tomasson eases us through the ballet’s anachronisms, dispensing with long sequences of pantomime and attaching its courtly pomp to a world of the imagination. The lavish sets and costumes by Danish designer Jens-Jacob Worsaae have enough lightness and beauty to dispel the burden of royalty.
As uncannily lovely as the ballet is, the classical technique necessary to dance the many solos that the libretto offers is daunting. It requires precision in both movement and musicality, for Tchaikovsky’s score, lushly rendered by the company’s symphony under the direction of Martin West, allows no slips in timing. Miss a count and everyone knows.
The choreography also demands control and formidable balance – not only in the famous Rose Adagio, during which Princess Aurora remains suspended on one pointe while her four partners change places as her support – but throughout the ballet in the symmetrical movement of individual steps that require a delicacy worthy of fairies and princesses. To be so ethereal requires heaps of strength.
And finally, there are the astounding moments of athleticism – the many beats and leaps with beats that characterize the male dancers’ virtuosity.
Sasha De Sola was the opening night Princess Aurora, and she was lovely. She is comfortable enough in her excellent technique so that is able to infuse the part with a shifting emotional tone. In the first act she presents the young princess on her 16th birthday as ebullient and joyful with enough vulnerability to suggest innocence. In the final act, she has become a more mature Aurora (that’s what a century of sleep will do for you), her innocence transformed into refinement, her joy into elegance.
De Sola was partnered by Carlo Di Lanno, whose height, decorum and sure partnering make him a natural for Prince Desiré. Beats look great with his long legs.
Sarah Van Patten danced the Lilac Fairy with gentleness and grace, rather than command, a fitting counterpart to De Sola’s Aurora. Anita Paciotti clearly enjoyed being wonderfully evil as the wicked fairy Carabosse, a role first danced by a man, a tradition often used in the ballet’s many revisions. The Bluebird and The Enchanted Princess were surefootedly danced by Wei Wang and Dores André, and everyone’s favorite duet, Puss in Boots and the White Cat, were adorably danced by Sean Orza and Wanting Zhao.
The ballet is set during a later period than the original – the 16th and 17th France in Petipa’s version and 17th and 18th Russia in Tomasson’s. This revision gives the ballet’s first act a slightly exotic feeling, as if the audience were watching the sorcerous world of the Firebird. The third act is set in Europeanized Russia. Wigs abound, and even the courtiers’ polonaise looks like a minuet. The choice heightens the fairy tale’s magical quality.