“Zakharova seems to pluck the violin strings with the impressive articulation of her feet….”
On Saturday 26 September, Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ reconstruction finally awakened at Teatro Alla Scala, Milan. The ballet – which cost six million dollars to produce – was a co-production between La Scala, Milan and the American Ballet Theatre (ABT).
The ballet’s luscious score was completed in 1889 by Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky – the composer of both The Nutcracker and Swan Lake – and Marius Petipa choreographed the ballet which premiered in 1890. The ballet is considered to be, for a female ballerina, one of the most technically challenging roles in the entire classical repertoire.
At its premiere in Milan, the role of Aurora was performed by Ukrainian ballet dancer and étoile at La Scala, Svetlana Zakharova, who also performs with the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer. David Hallberg (principal at both the Bolshoi Ballet and ABT) was originally scheduled to perform the role of the Prince but was unable to do so due to an injury. The company then announced that Sergei Polunin (former Principal of the Royal Ballet, London) would take on the role alongside Zakharova. Unfortunately, Polunin suffered a neck injury days before the premiere and young Italian dancer, Jacopo Tissi, was trusted with the task of performing alongside the renowned ballerina.
Zakharova is regarded as one of the greatest ballerinas of the generation and has been praised worldwide for her technical and musical expertise as well as her exceptionally high extensions. However, in Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Petipa’s most popular ballet, the Beauty does not flaunt the extensions for which Zakharova is so highly praised.
Instead, Ratmansky’s version pulls itself back to ballet’s roots – focusing on moulding the dancer strictly to Tchaikovsky’s demanding music and Petipa’s original vision.
The ballet is performed in one prologue (Aurora’s Christening) and three acts. ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, for me, appears to be one of few ballets in the classical repertoire that offers such a range of opportunities for dancers to showcase their strengths.
The reconstruction not only brings back the importance of Tchaikovsky’s music but also that of the ‘story’ which is lost in many modern versions of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’. Today, companies focus on dazzling audiences with high extensions, multiple turns and dizzying jumps and forget to tell the tale.
Of particular note amongst the corps de ballet and soloists in the prologue were the Songbird and Golden Vine (‘Finger’) Fairy variations. The former’s fast, precise movements hit each musical note and she also balanced beautifully during the coda. The latter’s success, though a clear attest to her skill, could also be attributed to the choreographic changes to the dance – particularly to her mischievous demeanour where the energy seemed to come, finally, from her hands and fingers rather than her shoulders and elbows.
Regrettably, I am unfamiliar with the Italian company and many of its dancers and they failed to provide as detailed a cast sheet as many other companies do, and therefore I am unsure as to which dancers danced those roles.
In other productions, once Aurora has been awakened from her century-long slumber, the ballet’s final act (The Wedding) turns into a display of technical grandeur that exists in the studio. With this production, though, the fairytale characters that offer their stories as gifts at the Princess’ wedding, tell vivid tales. This speaks volumes of the true meaning of ballet – ballerinas do not have to rise onto pointe to capture an audience nor do they have to brag double cabrioles and oversplit jetés.
Petipa’s ballet is primarily focused around the battle of good (the Lilac Fairy) and evil (Carabosse). These roles were portrayed by La Scala Principal dancer Nicoletta Manni and étoile Massimo Murru respectively. Manni’s Lilac Fairy was pure and controlled and her variation outshone those of the previous fairies – as it should. Uncanny was the way in which Murru (a male dancer) played with the character of Carabosse (a female fairy) – sending the character beyond the stage and into the audience.
No longer lost is Aurora’s character, nor that of her prince. Most importantly, their love for one another is clear in their wedding pas de deux which Ratmansky has gloriously brought back to life. Tender embraces replace penchés and intriguing musical changes peel like wedding bells.
Zakharova’s steely technique and lyricism are a constant source of reassurance throughout the performance. Her portrayal of Aurora is one driven by the music. She seems to pluck the violin strings with the impressive articulation of her feet while her arms flow unperturbed through each note.
The Rose Adagio, in which the Princess is introduced to and dances with her four suitors, saw several changes – which were also present through the ballet. In this particularly long and demanding adage, though, the low extensions, single pirouettes and musical attack only amplified Zakharova’s true skill and allowed her to execute the difficult choreography exquisitely.
As for the Prince, his role in the reconstruction offers the dancer very little time to showcase any technical brilliance. His one variation, however, utilised every beat and demanded precision. Tissi was able to keep up with the music through quick pas de bourrées but the quality of his dancing could not match Zakharova’s as much as Hallberg or Polunin. It must be noted that he is a very young dancer and has many, many years ahead of him to explore his technique and develop a sense of artistry.
The costumes also offer much to the reconstruction and can be seen in the pictures throughtout the article. They are unlike modern costumes used in the classical repertoire but their presence is needed. While watching the ballet I felt transported through time to the century of the kingdom I was looking in on rather than observing a spectacle on stage.
Zakharova and Tissi will perform the roles twice more on 1 and 6 October. The production will continue until 23 October. For more details visit the website of Teatro alla Scala.