Newspaper article International New York Times

Ballet Stands on Ceremony ; Nureyev's Staging of 'Sleeping Beauty' Returns to Paris Opera

Newspaper article International New York Times

Ballet Stands on Ceremony ; Nureyev's Staging of 'Sleeping Beauty' Returns to Paris Opera

Article excerpt

Nureyev's staging of 'Sleeping Beauty' returns to Paris Opera.


Rudolf Nureyev's "Sleeping Beauty," currently being performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, is ornate, ceremonious and very, very long. It also hints at the dancer's ambivalence toward the Russia he left behind when he defected to the West in 1961 at the age of 23 while on tour with the Kirov ballet.

It was for the Kirov that "The Sleeping Beauty" was created in 1890, when the company was called (as it is again now) the Mariinsky Ballet. Its choreographer was the French-born Marius Petipa, its composer, Tchaikovsky. In its formal perfection, its reiteration of hierarchical order and its grand theme of good versus evil, "Sleeping Beauty" represents the summit of balletic classicism. It remained a preoccupation for Nureyev throughout his career.

He first staged it at 28 for La Scala, then for several other companies before bringing it to the Paris Opera in 1989 in his last year as artistic director there. Nureyev's "Beauty," now being performed by the Paris company for the first time in nine years, at the Bastille Opera through Jan. 4, is packed with pomp and ceremony, with baroque court dances and decorous formations of courtiers and royals, fairies and dryads. Its decor, by Ezio Frigerio, is sumptuous, with classical columns and reclining nudes embellished by Rococo detail; the costumes, by Franca Squarciapino, are an excessively gorgeous riot of color and gold braid.

Does the ballet express Nureyev's admiration for the pre-Soviet days of imperial splendor and the way that ballet itself reflects the social order of the royal court? Or was the dancer, as the Paris Opera program suggests, offering "subtle criticism of power and its hold over the individual"?

Both might be true; the elaborate excesses of the ballet seem at once a veneration of the absolute authority of royal power and immutable social order, but also so exaggerated that it is hard not to imagine that a touch of irony pervades the display. But one thing is clear: it is happening very slowly.

The ballet's story unfolds at a glacial pace, there is never one variation if two or three will do, and the dramatic highpoints -- Carabosse's curse upon the baby Aurora, the moment when the young princess pricks her finger, the prince's arrival at the sleeping castle -- are oddly muted by the leisurely staging and decision to all but abolish the explanatory mime. They are also dampened by almost nonexistent acting; mild surprise seemed to be the emotion of choice at the performance Sunday afternoon, whether a curse to the death, or sudden salvation from same, was in the offing.

The lack of dramatic impulse was exacerbated by the pace of the score, conducted by Faycal Karoui and played by the Paris Opera orchestra at tempi that ranged from lethargic to funereal. (This must be very odd for Mr. Karoui, the Paris company's musical director, who previously held the same position at the New York City Ballet. There, the "Sleeping Beauty" staged by Peter Martins would have been over the halfway mark when Nureyev's 80-minute first act was just ending.)

And Nureyev's decision to cast the Lilac Fairy (Juliette Gernez ) as a mime counterpart to Carabosse (Nolwenn Daniel), rather than as a dancing fairy, further handicaps the narrative. It is Petipa's choreography that places the Lilac Fairy as a center of power and calm authority. Without it, she just seems to be an elegant lady in a nice purple dress, and the struggle between good and evil that is one of the ballet's central motifs never emerges with any clarity. …

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