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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Review: Atlanta Ballet casts enchanting spell with "Sleeping Beauty"

  • Charlie McCullers, Courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.
One of the most welcome elements of last night's opening of Sleeping Beauty at the Cobb Energy Center was the return of a live orchestra to Atlanta Ballet productions. After several years of funding troubles and labor disputes which left the dancers spinning and jumping to canned music, the live orchestra has returned. It is not a small change. The artistic leap forward for the company was palpable from the first moment to the last. A live orchestra provides a richness, immediacy and authenticity that can't be substituted. It's clearly experienced by both the dancers and spectators alike. Ari Pelto's orchestra sounded fantastic, and it's something to be celebrated.

Artistic director John McFall offers a shortened, accessible version of the classic ballet with his production at about two hours (Full productions of the original can clock in at over four). Purists may balk, but I think condensing the piece is a wise decision. Entering the sugar-coated kingdom of Tchaikovsky and Sleeping Beauty is like eating cotton candy: It's a fun, guilty pleasure once in a while, but a four hour program of it can be like sitting down to a seven-course meal comprised of nothing but cotton candy with a cherry coke to wash it down. Due to the cuts, the show could feel a little lop-sided—the prince seemed to defeat the villainess shortly after he's introduced and there's a wedding party that (like most wedding parties?) lasts a little too long—but in all, the narrative was well-paced and compelling.

Another strength of the staging was the fact that the production is comprised of short pieces and vignettes which sequentially showcase the strengths of individual dancers. Styles in the company run the gamut from the comic to the precise to the fluid to the gravity-defying, and McFall is clearly a director who choreographs with his dancers, rather than hammers out a particular vision onto them. Dancers felt comfortable with what they were asked to do and enjoyed showing off their strong points. I was also impressed with McFall's facility with tableaux: sometimes just the arrangement of the visual elements on-stage could be enthralling. The end of act one as the residents of the castle fell asleep and vines descended on them had a particularly enchanting, painterly, 19th century storybook quality to it.

I liked the choreography of the first act, but the second half of the program provided more impressive jumps and leaps, with Jacob Bush as Prince Desiré, Brain Wallberg as Tom Thumb, and Jared Tan as Bluebird each with their own impressive, individual and distinctive styles.

Tara Lee as Carabosse was a standout in the cast: her movements were graceful and appropriately serpentine, but Lee is also a splendid actress who seemed to be channeling something downright evil... and enjoying it immensely. Her Carabosse was the best type of villain: Not merely misunderstood or lacking the opportunity for reform, Lee played Carabosse as a woman who simply enjoys being awful. Every sneer, every hair-pulling snit-fit, seemed to be a source of wicked delight. I'll have to check the books, but I'm pretty sure Cobb County has laws against having that much fun on stage.

Watching Kristine Necessary perform as Princess Aurora was bittersweet, as the ballerina is preparing for retirement. It's hard to reconcile the sight of her precise, athletic, effortless turns with the phrase “ready to retire,” but the 28-year-old Necessary has decided to let Princess Aurora be her last leading role and is hanging up her ballet slippers in order to pursue an interest in teaching and family life. She will definitely be missed.

The writer Jennifer Homans' otherwise excellent new history of ballet Apollo's Angels ends with a chapter summarily announcing the death of ballet (The chapter was also published in The New Republic a few months ago with much subsequent hand-wringing in the ballet world). She talks about ballet becoming a “recondite world of hyperspecialists and balletomanes, insiders who talk only to each other.” I looked around before the show and during the intermission last night to see if I could catch a glimpse of any of these hyperspecialists and balletomane insiders in their recondite, elitist, secretive and enclosed world, but they must have been hiding. I did see a lot of happy show-goers. One little girl in a Snow White costume jumped up and down like a pogo stick, shrieking “I'm going to see Sleeping Beauty! I'm going to see Sleeping BEAUTY!!” and during intermission I overheard a guy say to his date, “I'm usually bored at this type of thing, but I'm so not bored.” In short, I saw a bunch of people enjoying a show. It was a lovely evening. Driving home I felt refreshed, as if my brain had been nicely dry-cleaned and freshly pressed. In all, it's a pretty, accessible, fun, energizing show (accompanied by a live orchestra) that does not sit well with Homans' estimation that ballet is over.

The Atlanta Ballet performs Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center Saturday, February 12 at 2 & 8 pm. and Sunday, February 13, at 2 pm. Tickets start at $20. For more information or to purchase tickets visit the Atlanta Ballet or call 770-916-2800.

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