Review: Grand Rapids Ballet's 'Sleeping Beauty' is a Uniquely Gorgeous, Thrilling Feat

To be audience to “Sleeping Beauty” is to bear witness to history, to be fully immersed in tradition and artistry that goes back more than 400 years. And to be audience to a performance as superb as that staged by Grand Rapids Ballet accompanied by the Grand Rapids Symphony, is to be transformed.

There is tradition in the classical storybook ballet that is enduring—perhaps beyond that of anything else we experience as a culture. There is sweeping romance, lush costumes, and artistic technique that to our eyes hasn’t changed all that much since its inception—even though its expression has evolved with every generation of artists who have mastered it.

“The Sleeping Beauty” in 1890 itself presented a radical shift in artistry. Considered the first truly Russian ballet, it was an anointed collaboration between Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who offered a complex, sweeping score the likes of which had never been danced to, and Marius Petipa, whose choreography is perfectly constructed to require the utmost classical precision, virtuosity, and musicality on a grand scale. It was the hot ticket for its day, a radical departure for audiences in that it was a storybook ballet made new with a different kind of story, music, and movement.

The ballet opens in the 16th Century with the birth of a young princess who is cursed by an evil fairy who condemns her to death. However, a good fairy softens the curse so that instead of death, the princess and her entire royal court will sleep for 100 years until her true love awakens her with a kiss.

Though it’s a thin plot—they dance, they sleep, they dance again—with little pantomime, it’s a rich, lush, classical ballet, which means the story is in the steps. Oh, and wondrous are those steps! Based on Petipa’s original choreography, with touches from other choreographers and dancers who have shaped this ballet in their time (George Balanchine and Peter Martins included), Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty”, choreographed by Devon Carney of Kansas City Ballet, originally created for the Cincinnati Ballet in 2010, with grand, colorful, sparkly sets and costumes from Peter Farmer with exquisite lighting design from Trad A. Burns, capitalizes on all of the traditions and history of this phenomenal ballet to bring the best of its majesty to De Vos.

And it is danced marvelously by the Grand Rapids Ballet, a company that possesses tremendous versatility in form and style, but really shows their remarkable talent and skill collectively and individually in what is essentially the grandest four-act ballet in existence.

Highlights include the corps de ballet of fairies in the Prologue who individually bestow gifts in adoration on the baby princess Aurora. Their lines and patterns together are exquisitely executed, only to be outmatched by the terrific virtuosity in their individual solos. Dressed in sparkly pastel platter tutus, each dancer offers a unique character through her distinct movement and charm.

The opening of Act I with the most memorable movement of Tchaikovsky’s score, offers a glorious vision of spring in light green and pink with the iconic garland dance that makes use of the full company, including children, dressed in long tutus and floral head pieces, dancing with garland arches of flowers above their heads.

But all eyes are on prima ballerina Yuka Oba-Muschiana who has never danced more beautifully as Aurora. A 13-year member of the company, this is her finest dancing yet. Fully committed both technically and emotionally, she is in full possession of her dancing and the character, wordlessly communicating Aurora’s arc, from jubilance to majesty, and youthful exuberance to self possession.

She makes a spritely, bold entrance with big, sweet energy, quick steps and nimble feet, with sharp point work and phenomenal bravura. And though she is wonderfully partnered at varying crucial moments of the ballet, ultimately she dances most powerfully on her own, making good on the promise of her name, which means dawn. It is a new dawn, and though a central theme of “Sleeping Beauty” is considered to be that true love conquers all, in this iteration the love story is much more about the glory of the royal court and the promise of one life to endure for all.

In the renowned Rose Adagio of Act II, one of four suitors, one after another, each takes her hand and rotates her in a circle as she balances on one leg, the other in attitude, leaving her briefly unsupported before the next takes her hand. It is in these tremendous moments of pause, when she is in perfect balance as if a ballerina in a jewelry box, that we see it is about her literally standing on her own in the most precarious of positions. But she does so calmly, beautifully, in full possession of herself.

She dances with Josué Justiz as the prince, first in an imagined vision wherein he sees her but she is unaware of him, and this sets the tone for their pas de deux to come. She is glorified; their movement is ultimately about her, as if we the audience adore her much like the other performers did at her birth in the Prologue.

But the evolution does come in their grand pas de deus in the wedding of Act III. An echo of her tremendous strength, balance, and beauty, the apex of their partnering are the fish dives, when he holds her body in a crescent shape with both legs lifted and crossed elegantly balanced on his hip. The focus most certainly is on her, but at this point, she can only achieve this gorgeous, thrilling feat with him.

The entirety of Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty” is itself a gorgeous, thrilling feat. What a privilege it is to witness such artistry—the combination of brilliant classical ballet and classical music performed live—the likes of which is rare indeed.

Especially now, in a cultural moment wherein what was once science fiction and fantasy has become reality—a world in which computers may rapidly take over the jobs of artists, the world of the classical storybook ballet is a true escape from all that. It is the true fantasy: where we can see and hear in all its resplendent glory a story, a world, an experience created entirely from that which is utterly divine: the imaginations of great masters coupled with the gravity-defying achievements of the human body and spirit, techniques and source material passed down through generations. It remains jaw-dropping to watch and it reflects something deeply comforting back to us: that which remains unchanging in us, in our human capabilities, regardless of the changes going on outside of us.

Sleeping Beauty
Grand Rapids Ballet
Feb. 23-25


Photo Courtesy of Ray Nard Imagemaker.