Friday, June 1, 2007

She Walks in Beauty Amid Elves and Evil

Gelsey Kirkland, right, American Ballet Theater dancer and assistant choreographer, works with Veronika Part on “The Sleeping Beauty.”

Photo by: Andrea Mohin
Source: New York Times June 1st, 2007
Author: Jennifer Dunning

The Sleeping Beauty” is considered by many to be the highest, purest achievement of Marius Petipa, the 19th-century choreographer of “Swan Lake,” who shaped what we think of today as ballet classicism. Lincoln Kirstein called “The Sleeping Beauty,” first performed in January 1890 at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, “a final definition of czarist spectacle.”

Nearly every major ballet troupe has performed some version of the classic. Now American Ballet Theater is weighing in with a new production, its sixth in its 67-year history. It has been staged by Kevin McKenzie, the company’s director, and Gelsey Kirkland, back in New York after a long absence that has left undiminished the memory of her career and her presence as one of the great ballerinas of the 1970s and ’80s. Ms. Kirkland will also return to the stage, dancing Carabosse, the evil fairy, on Monday night and Wednesday afternoon.

The production opens tonight at the Metropolitan Opera House after months of tantalizing rumors. What about the new staging’s “river of light”? And cavaliers who are now supernatural “elvadors”? Or, Ms. Kirkland mischievously asked the audience at a lecture-demonstration this year, should they just be called elves?

Ballet Theater’s “Sleeping Beauty,” with sets by Tony Walton and costumes by Willa Kim, largely follows the traditions handed down from the original and gleaned from stagings by Konstantin and Nicholas Sergeyev and Fyodor Lopukhov, whose choreography for the gracious, healing Lilac Fairy lives on today in this and most other productions.

But there are differences. Working with Michael Chernov, a dramaturge who is married to Ms. Kirkland, she and Mr. McKenzie wanted to create a newly flesh-and-blood prince who is more than the hesitant awakener of Aurora, the princess who falls asleep for 100 years after being cursed by the evil fairy, Carabosse. Another important goal has been to heighten the differences between the supernatural and human worlds depicted in “Beauty.”

But there will be new choreography, said to be a group effort, for Carabosse, the first-act Garland Dance and the second-act hunting party. The third-act wedding scene has been stripped of its divertissements, Mr. McKenzie said in a recent interview, and takes place partly in a little theater in the sky. And he has continued the streamlining process started by Peter Martins in his 1991 production for the New York City Ballet, performed last month.

Gelsey Kirkland, center, working with the Ballet Theater dancers Marcelo Gomes and Veronika Part. Photo: Andrea Mohin

“The Sleeping Beauty” has traditionally been a big, rather ponderous extravaganza, despite unrivaled gems of classical dancing like the Rose Adagio; the haunting, luminous Vision Scene in which Prince Désiré first sees his ideal woman; and the variations or solos danced by fairies bringing their gifts to the infant Aurora.

“This whole journey started when I saw the Kirov Ballet’s four-hour reconstruction,” Mr. McKenzie said, referring to the successor to the St. Petersburg troupe that inherited the mantle of the company for which “The Sleeping Beauty” was created. “It was a fascinating historic project, but I didn’t feel energized as an audience. I was intellectually stimulated, but I wasn’t energized.”

He said he wanted to heighten the color and nuance of the ballet, much as he did in his 2000 restaging of “Swan Lake” for Ballet Theater. “I wanted to take this story and present it as this wonderful fairy tale,” he said. “Not to entertain outright, but not to be holier-than-thou about it.”

Ms. Kirkland was a bold but logical choice as a collaborator for a revitalized “Beauty.” From the start of a long and tumultuous stage career she was obsessive about investing choreography and characterization with the meaning she searched for in even the simplest steps, poses and props.

She had become a headstrong star of City Ballet at 17 and then moved on to Ballet Theater in 1974. By 1984, the last year she performed in New York, cocaine addiction had finally reduced her career to shreds. Yet there were triumphs to come when she performed lead roles, including Aurora with the Royal Ballet in 1986. And then she seemed to disappear, moving with Mr. Chernov to Australia, where both taught, and she dreamed, he said, of becoming a waitress. “I think she was trying to say she would like to lead a regular life and be invisible,” he said.

Her formal return to Ballet Theater came two years ago, after she recommended a teacher for the company’s junior troupe. Its director chose her instead. And Mr. McKenzie, who had performed with Ms. Kirkland at Ballet Theater, began to consider working with her and Mr. Chernov on “Beauty.”

Mr. McKenzie said: “I thought: ‘If she’s ready to move back into the scene, this is a finite project. Let’s see if it can work for her, and for me too.’ So I invited her about February of last year.”

He described his way of working as “very big-picture.”

“I sketch things out broadly and then go back and refine them,” Mr. McKenzie said. “I thought that if I asked Gelsey to do some research for me, she would come back with every single thing that had ever been written.

“Where our process differs is that she will attack the whole thing at once. She will teach the first tombé pas de bourrée with all its meaning and its back story, the character and what’s happening at that moment, whereas I sketch the traffic first: ‘You step right. You step left. You get over here. Now you know where you are in space.’ And then I go into detail.”

Ms. Kirkland does pay attention to pure dance attributes. “The style of the Kirov Ballet is that they manifest the quality of fairy in the upper body: the fluidity, the plasticity,” she said of “Beauty.” “There are many springing steps from point in the variations. You have to have a buoyant technique in a certain area, like speaking with a certain accent.”

From early in her performing career she has believed in working with pantomime and acting teachers. “I think the classical roles need to be approached with an actor’s point of view,” she said. “You have to open it up for each person so that it remains alive. There are differences in how to do that in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ as opposed to ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ but still the process is the same. You have to make a mess before you can bring it back together again.

“Some of the gestures in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ are symbolic. And if the gestures can be filled with belief in what is symbolized, then it can be amazing. But you have to be very careful.”

The process can be painful, said Xiomara Reyes, whom Ms. Kirkland coached in the roles of Aurora and Princess Florine. Dancers become known for the way they move. “And sometimes people come to us because we have some special way of moving they feel close to,” Ms. Reyes said. “They get attached. Gelsey makes you re-examine all these things.”

Ms. Kirkland is a hero, though a demanding one, to Ms. Reyes. She said Ms. Kirkland was such a childhood inspiration that as a young dancer in Cuba Ms. Reyes read only the dance passages in Ms. Kirkland’s juicy autobiography, “Dancing on My Grave” (Doubleday, 1986).

“She is so completely passionate about what she does,” Ms. Reyes said. “She wants you to feel every hand, every movement, every turn of the head. That takes a long time, but it’s the work of a perfectionist person, a work that I think is priceless sometimes.”

Mr. Chernov began by going back to early source material on the fairy tale, its antecedents in Nordic legend and the Persephone myth. An actor who trained as a dancer, he also worked his way back through historical stagings to get as close as he could to the Petipa original. Ms. Kirkland helped him and also coached all the women’s roles. And then she began to work on Carabosse. “She’s got a bee in her bonnet, I tell you,” Mr. McKenzie said.

All three refused to divulge much about Ms. Kirkland’s characterization. “You can’t creep up on this role,” she said. “You have to embody evil.”

Was she looking forward to returning to the stage? She laughed. “I blame everybody for Carabosse,” she said. “It’s everybody’s fault. And I intend to take revenge on everybody. I’m going to kill the baby.”

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