Helgi Tomasson Sets Petipa’s Classic in Sumptuous Beauty
by Pamela Feinsilber
For a great night of theater, there’s nothing like a classic ballet, at least when performed as well and as sumptuously as San Francisco Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty.” It is, after all, drawn from a fairy tale, with the story conveyed in dance and mime. In these cold, politically gloomy days, seeing glorious dancing, in gorgeous costumes, amid elegant sets, with Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music (performed by the San Francisco Ballet orchestra) is escapism of the highest order.
The tale is not Grimm, but from Frenchman Charles Perrault’s 1697 book Tales of Times Past, with Morals. I suppose the moral of “Sleeping Beauty,” in which (in the ballet) the Lilac Fairy softens the curse of the Fairy of Darkness (who, angered at not being invited to baby Beauty’s christening, proclaims that the girl will die if she pricks her finger on a spindle, which, naturally, she does) is that Love Trumps Hate. Of course it does!
Along the way to true love’s awakening, we meet royalty and courtiers, forest nymphs, more fairies, and, in the ballet version, a White Cat and Puss in Boots, not to mention a Bluebird and an Enchanted Princess, all of whom dance and dance, wonderfully. Under longtime Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, the company’s principal dancers, soloists, and corps de ballet not only dance splendidly but are fine mimes as well. Who needs words?
“Sleeping Beauty” was born in 1890 at the Imperial Ballet in Saint Petersburg, Russia, by French-born choreographer Marius Petipa (“the father of classical ballet”). Tomasson, who is also S.F. Ballet’s principal choreographer, created this version “after Marius Petipa.”
A cool thing about this production is that the scenes of the christening and the evil spell take place in 17th-century Russia, with beautiful Russian-inspired robes and caps of velvet and fur. When Beauty wakes up a hundred years later, Peter the Great has brought European styles and culture into the court, so the dancers wear gowns and tiaras and powdered wigs—still some tutus, though. (Sets and costumes were created by the late Jens-Jacob Worsaae, who worked extensively with the Royal Danish Ballet.)
And the production contains classic Petipa moments, like the famed “Rose Adagio.” You don’t have to be a balletomane to appreciate its artistry and amazing difficulty. Here, Aurora, in true fairy-tale fashion, dances with four princely suitors, each of whom hands her a rose. She dances the same steps with each, as if trying to decide which she might want to marry. At the beginning and end of this dance, she is standing en pointe, on the tips of her toe shoes—which is demanding enough. After each prince turns her in a circle, she lets go of his hand and takes the hand of the next, still en pointe, never resting for a second. Talk about athletic. You can feel the audience holding its breath.
With choreography like this, you want to see a topnotch company performing “Sleeping Beauty.” During this run, five different couples portray Aurora and Prince Desiré; alternates, too, dance the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse, the Fairy of Darkness, as well as the couples in the “fairy-tale divertissements”—the White Cat and Puss in Boots, and the Bluebird and Enchanted Princess. I saw Frances Chung and Vitor Luiz, two of my favorite principal dancers, in the leads, but I’d be happy to see any of the dancers in any of those roles.
Later in the season, we’ll get plenty of modern ballet, including 12 ballets by 12 different choreographers—all created for this company and never seen before—in the Unbound program, in April. Sometimes, though, it’s just nice to see a tutu ballet performed impeccably in luxurious costumes and sets. If you like ballet at all, you’re sure to be delighted with this rousing Beauty.
“The Sleeping Beauty” by San Francisco Ballet, at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, through Sunday, February 4, 2018. Info: sfballet.org
Sunday, January 28, at 2:00 PM: Aurora: Sasha De Sola; Prince Desiré: Carlo Di Lanno.
Friday, February 2, at 8:00 PM: Aurora: Mathilde Froustey; Prince Desiré: Luke Ingham.
TBA: Saturday, February 3, at 2:00 & 8:00 PM.
TBA: Sunday, February 4, at 2:00 PM.
Top Photo: San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” © Erik Tomasson