REVIEW: American Ballet Theatre's The Sleeping Beauty

Written by | Miscellaneous

American Ballet Theatre presents a new production of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, staged by Alexei Ratmansky, artist in residence.

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora (photo by Gene Schiavone)

Having been dragged to a small number of boring christenings, I don’t understand why anyone would be upset not to be invited to one. But I suppose if the witch in the Sleeping Beauty tale agreed, we wouldn’t have much of a story. Perhaps I can’t relate to her anguish because no baptism I’ve gone to has had Misty Copeland on its bill.

American Ballet Theatre opened its impressive new production of The Sleeping Beauty this spring. (It premiered it in Costa Mesa, CA, and will go on to Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, a co-producer.) Despite being a warhorse in story-ballet rep, Alexei Ratmansky’s new staging kept its audience very much awake. He’s become a valuable energizer of the classics lately, as seen in his recent Nutcracker, also for ABT, a staging which made the show worth seeing again. In Beauty, he shoots for spectacle, ABT has indulged him, and the payoff is huge.

I think it’s fair to say we all know the story well enough to avoid recap, and Tchaikovsky’s telling of it follows more or less familiarly. The pre-prick setting here is some baroque era, with lots of Charles II wigs. Lots. The New York Times profiled the production’s design, citing 210 coiffures on both the women and men. Richard Hudson’s costumes are ornate, especially those for the pantomime characters, with women in trains that Princess Diana would have thought over the top. And while Hudson’s 2D sets are generally flat, they create a grandness so that when it all comes together, it’s impressive. In the act after the famous prick and a hundred years of sleep, we’re in a bustle-heavy (and heavy-bustle) Georgian period.

The thing is big, a production that risks overcoming its choreography. But the ABT company right now is in such strong shape, especially its women, that no gown train or beehive pulls focus; they bring exciting life to Ratmansky’s work (after Marius Petipa’s 1890 choreography).

The most exciting dancing came from dancers in small roles bookending the story. In the Prologue, soloist Misty Copeland danced the Wheat Flower Fairy, sadly a sort of Fairy #3 role. One of six gift-bearing fairies, the Fleur de Farine variation allows Copeland just a couple minutes to show a very muscular precision, so strong and so precise that we could name her left leg Smith and her right Wesson. The only complaint is that Hudson’s principal dresses fall to the knees, obscuring some of the magic of watching particularly strong dancers such as Copeland.

Act III is called “The Wedding,” but has little to do with the drama. By now the Beauty has woken up, and there’s no consequence for the witch Carabosse who’s now invited to the party — no 10-story dragons here. It’s a fairy tales performed as gifts for Aurora and her groom. Zhiyao Zhang stepped out of the corps to play The Bluebird, a character from some B-side story. Zhang’s small build and big energy bring the birdlike grace the choreography is built for, and his comfort in the air is fun to watch. He doesn’t insist on grabbing attention with flash, but his simple elegance commands the eye. If he can sustain for longer movements what he showed in a two-minute divertissement, Zhang will be someone exciting to watch move up the company ranks.

Zhiyao Zhang as The Bluebird (photo by Gene Schiavone)

The bulk of the dancing, of course, falls on the title character. Gillian Murphy danced Aurora the night I saw it. (She has one more show this weekend.) A popular ABT soloist, her technique is impressive. In her garden-party work, she’s made to stay on point as each of four suitors give her the moves. But while Murphy clearly owns her space, her expressiveness was somewhat tempered — not hugely, but noticeably — and it kept her performance from going the final 1 percent.

You have to applaud ABT for going all-in with this production, and you have to appreciate Ratmansky’s ability to keep focus on exciting choreography amidst a hundred characters in hundreds of costumes. But if there’s any reason to see The Sleeping Beauty right now, it’s to see a large company with the strength to pull it off.

The Sleeping Beauty continues at the Metropolitan Opera House through Saturday evening; ABT’s summer season continues to July 4. Tickets and performances available at

Last modified: July 27, 2017