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Russian National Ballet wakes up ‘Sleeping Beauty’

Brian Doxtader | Monday, January 23, 2006

The Russian National Ballet Company performed “The Sleeping Beauty” at the Morris Performing Arts Center on Saturday. The Russian National Ballet, founded by Artistic Director Sergei Radchenko, is a world-renowned organization. It has toured throughout Europe, Asia and the United States. Radchenko was the principal dancer of the Bolshoi Ballet before starting the Russian National Ballet.

The performers brought a sweeping grace and beauty to the classic story, set against the timeless music of Tchaikovsky and the choreography of Marius Petipa. It opens with a long, expressive prologue that lays out the plot, which is familiar to anyone who’s seen the Disney film. An evil witch casts a spell on a princess that dooms her to death on her sixteenth birthday, but a counter-spell by a good fairy causes her to sleep rather than die until a prince comes to her rescue.

The final act, a wedding scene in which the story is essentially jettisoned, features dances by Puss ‘n’ Boots, Bluebeard and his wife, Goldilocks and a Bear, and Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.

Like many musical events, the plot itself is just window dressing for the spectacle of the dancing, which was spectacular and impressive. All of the dancers were quite good, and the ensemble performances were enthralling, but it was the solo and duet dances that were most effective. Each of the leads – Princess Aurora, Prince Desire and the Fairy of Lilac – had segments that were wonderfully conceived and executed. Prince Desire, in particular, demonstrated an athletic grace as he jumped and twirled for the just-awoken Princess Aurora.

Among the other highlights were the interplay between Bluebeard and his wife and Aurora’s solo in the first Act, and most of the dances by the Fairy of Lilac, who brought a lithe grace to her role.

The story was outlined in the program, which is good, because it is nearly incomprehensible as presented. Plot wasn’t really the point of the ballet, however, as most of the dancing was spectacle (divertissement). The last act in the particular abandoned pretense in favor of a progression of increasingly lavish and acrobatic dances.

The costumes ranged from plain to surprisingly ornate. The most indelible was the evil witch, whose hunched-over posture and rat-masked entourage was a highlight of the show. However, much of the costuming for the principal actors was more practical than decorative, which neither added nor detracted from the dancing. The set, which appeared hand-painted, was well-done and added to the atmosphere.

The music was canned rather than live, the only real disappointment in an otherwise impressive show. Still, this compromise was understandable, as the real draw of the ballet was the dancing rather than the music – though Tchaikovsky’s score is justifiably famous and was later recycled for the Disney version. While it’s not quite as famous as some of his other compositions (“The Nutcracker Suite,” “The 1812 Overture,” “Romeo and Juliet”), the score for “The Sleeping Beauty” is equally memorable and engaging.

The Russian National Ballet Company is justifiably one of the most famous in the world, and their performance of “The Sleeping Beauty,” combined with Tchaikovsky’s music and Petipa’s choreography, made it an oft-breathtaking show and a prime exhibition of classical ballet.