Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dance: The Sleeping Beauty at New York City Ballet

The only thing I have to compare NYCB's The Sleeping Beauty with is Disney's The Sleeping Beauty, which isn't quite fair, especially when taking into account the fact that I haven't seen the Disney movie in over twenty years, and unlike favorites like The Little Mermaid, probably only saw it once. In fact, I think I saw the Joffrey Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty twenty years ago as well; it was my first time going to a performance in New York, and my mom asked me whether I wanted to go to the ballet, or to see something called Cats, which would have tap dancing. (At the time, I took both ballet and tap lessons every Saturday.) I chose the ballet, but changed my mind a few days later. "Mom," I said, "I've decided that actually I would rather see Cats." "Oh, honey," she told me, "It's too late; I've already bought the tickets." We went to see The Sleeping Beauty and I fell asleep. The next year, and the five or six years after that, we went to see Cats. I bought the soundtrack and the book of T. S. Eliot poems it was based on, and after memorizing all the words, I would perform the songs for my mother. Freshman year of high school, I was still shameless enough to perform both songs and dances from Cats with a classmate for a kind of mandatory extra-credit project in our honors English class. Our teacher was disappointed that we didn't discuss any of Eliot's other work. At the time, I didn't know he had any other work to speak of.

The New York City Ballet generally offends my sensibilities. Aside from the fact that all the dancers are very, very white, all the pas-de-deux are for heterosexual couples, and most of the bodies on stage are tasked to stand prettily in a semi-circle while the two principles perform breathtaking feats, there is the repressed airlessness of extreme control that pervades the performance. Never does a dancer test her limit on stage, or even approach the extreme. Everything is measured, perfectly rehearsed, calculated. Modern dancers have more play in their ribcages, and a wider range of expression across their faces, but they also have more flexibility in their technique: every movement is exploration, rather than execution, and a performance is no different, at least in that sense, than a rehearsal. And so, where the NYCB must offer a full orchestra, expensive moving scenery, and heavy costumes with hand-embroidery and rhinestones that can be seen from the highest balcony to impart any drama, real drama reveals itself when all of this is stripped away and the body expands to fill that space.

Then again, the performers in Cats wore some pretty extravagant costumes as well. In fact, there was one enjoyable pas-de-deux in The Sleeping Beauty. In the final Act, when Princess Aurora marries the Prince, a number of couples perform short dances in their honor. One of these couples was a pair of, yes, cats, who had license to jump and frolic and flirt, their exuberance no longer suppressed by their humanity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a modern dancer couldn't agree more about the calculated perfection so-to-speak of the ballet. Haven't been myself in over a few years and never saw "Sleeping Beauty," but have to admit though, it was one of my all time favorite Disney flicks! Stinks there's not enough funding and support for those willing to push the boundaries. The masses rather have spoon-fed perfection versus the crapshoot of modern dance!