Dance Review: ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ New York City Ballet, at Lincoln Center

February 20th, 2013

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

New York City Ballet Marika Anderson, center, in the company’s “Sleeping Beauty” on Sunday evening at the David H. Koch Theater.

There may be no ballet harder to get right in the theater than “The Sleeping Beauty.” It’s made up of innumerable details — musical, choreographic, decorative — that cover a wide range of what ballet theater can be, from pure classicism to scenic magic. New York City Ballet’s production of “The Sleeping Beauty” — first staged by Peter Martins in 1991 and little altered since — is a strangely conflicted experience. Its designs are largely of unusual loveliness. Many of its directorial decisions, grand or tiny, show intelligence and discrimination seldom found in this ballet.

Throughout, however, there are minutiae that shatter this remarkable achievement. And larger than any single incident is the policy of making this “Beauty” short and fast (less than two and a half hours for a ballet that can last over four). When it was new, only Kyra Nichols — one of its seven Auroras and also its first-cast Lilac Fairy — was able to bring the music’s drama to life at that speed. But City Ballet has always been celebrated for its speed; it was fair to hope that with time others would match her achievement. Nobody has quite done so, and yet this really is not the fault of any dancer. All too often this is “Beauty” on a conveyor belt.

On Thursday and Sunday I watched three casts. This wasn’t a chore; the last cast, on Sunday evening, was the best. Antonio Carmena brought terrific force to the Bluebird solo and coda; even a prestissimo tempo couldn’t make his dancing blurry. Robert Fairchild, as Prince Désiré, imposed himself differently on his final variation, with a mastery of dynamic contrasts that gave him moments of seeming leisure as well as of charging power.

Grander and more individual than either was Sterling Hyltin, the evening’s Princess Aurora. In the Spell scene of Act I, her youthful vitality was gripping. Lighting up the whole stage with the stretch of her line, exquisite in the tapering stretch of her physique, she claimed the choreography like life itself. Happiness beamed from everything she did. Even as the Vision — in choreography that often suggests poignancy and melancholy in other productions — her sweetness was like a beacon.

At the start of her Wedding solo, she even found passages of meditative playfulness, taking us now into her inner world and letting us know, as she teased out the rhythms and shapes of her steps, that here was her dream come true.

Even so, she is only a 10th as good as she could be, chiefly because the production’s phrasing and tempo don’t allow her to resolve most of her phrases properly or to show full definition within speed.

The same is true of many dancers throughout this production. The most obvious moment occurs in the adagio featuring the six fairy godmothers in the Christening. One after another, all six take supported pirouettes into an attitude position — that line of six uniform sculptural shapes can be one of the ballet’s sovereign images, in which we see human forms as works of ideal geometry — but here the sixth never fully arrives in that attitude because she and the others have to hasten into the next pirouettes. It’s like watching with the fast-forward button pressed at every moment.

If there are any technicians in this company who can exemplify the “less haste, more speed” style needed to bring this staging into full dance focus, they are surely Ashley Bouder and Tiler Peck, dancers of extraordinary lucidity at any tempo. Both, however, fell short of the mark. Ms. Bouder, after dancing many other roles in top form this season, was a pugnacious, swaggering Aurora, insolent in holding balances, strutting her stuff at her wedding with prizefighter merriment.

Ms. Peck, though a far subtler artist, doesn’t yet have the secret of addressing either her colleagues or her audience as if they were part of her world: though she’s stylish and finished, she’s somewhat slick. And neither dances as if the music’s drama were her priority.

The production is an image of Mr. Martins himself. He casts with care, giving his dancers much to do, but the material he gives them is seldom shaped to allow them to emerge with distinction. The pas de quatre of Jewels he has made for the Wedding is an intriguing collage of choreographic ideas taken from Marius Petipa (the original choreographer of “The Sleeping Beauty”), George Balanchine (the company’s founding choreographer) and Frederick Ashton (who did much to shape the Royal Ballet tradition in this ballet and was the first to choreograph the solo in 5/4 tempo, here danced by Diamond), but it’s also very much Mr. Martins’s work.

Here and there in this Jewels suite you see a phrase that releases one dancer at one performance, another that ignites a different dancer on another occasion. Sara Adams, Jared Angle, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Rebecca Krohn, Ashley Laracey, Savannah Lowery, Lauren Lovette and Brittany Pollack were among those this season who had such moments — but not, thanks to the choreography, lastingly.

At Thursday’s performance Ms. Lovette and Daniel Ulbricht made the pas de deux for Princess Florine and the Bluebird — the choreography is almost entirely Petipa’s — the evening’s most vivid dance sequence; at Sunday’s matinee Anthony Huxley, whose dancing shimmers with not only brilliance but also delicacy, showed that he could be a quite remarkable Bluebird if only he could add a touch of fantasy.

Tchaikovsky’s score has been repeatedly and rightly held up as the greatest single achievement of music for ballet. Could you have believed that from these performances? Clotilde Otranto (Thursday), Daniel Capps (Sunday afternoon) and Andrews Sill (Sunday evening) were the conductors; all of them, following the lines established by this production, made it lively, pretty and unimportant.

Mr. Sill, working with Ms. Hyltin, proved to be the finest accompanist, though Ms. Otranto also helped a number of debutante fairy godmothers to make a few incisive musical points. But color and drama paled; this was breathless Tchaikovsky, with an eye on the stopwatch.

“The Sleeping Beauty” runs through Sunday at the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center; (212) 496-0600,

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