Review: SF Ballet’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’

I have been a San Francisco Ballet fan since the early 1980s, when Michael Smuin ran the company. I was living in the city and had a ballet subscription. They have only gotten better since then, growing into one of this country’s most distinguished classical companies. Sadly, they infrequently come south to perform here. We’re close—but not close enough.

When a friend mentioned that she had tickets to “Sleeping Beauty” on Jan. 27 at the War Memorial Opera House, that was all the prodding I needed to make a weekend trip to the Bay Area. The company has not done this “Sleeping Beauty” in L.A. or Orange County. Helgi Tomasson, SFB’s current artistic director, mounted this traditional production in 1990 as a centennial celebration of Marius Petipa’s 1890 original, with Peter Tchaikovsky’s music, the second of the three great full-length ballet scores he composed. Tomasson became SFB director in 1985; his first full-length story ballet for the troupe was “Swan Lake,” and he collaborated on it with Danish designer Jens-Jacob Worsaae. He tapped Worsaae again for “Beauty’s” sets and costumes. The duo situated the ballet in Russia in the 17th century (for the prologue and act one) and the 18th century (for acts two and three), allowing for a very clever and striking contrast of pre- and post-Peter-the-Great Russia, essentially the difference between East and West. For the first half, the court is garbed in loose, flowing, reddish, fur-lined gowns (think graduation style) and with hats that look like the domed tops of the buildings visible in the painted backdrops. For the second half, it was fitted jackets and powdered wigs. Tutus are in muted colors. The sets are classy, not ostentatious. The Hunt scene takes place in a forest of handsome white birches. The act three wedding scenery is new, similar to sets Worsaae made for the Royal Danish Ballet, and it is a spectacular royal palace with a golden grand staircase. (The photos posted here, provided by the company, show different dancers from the cast I saw and describe.)

Sleeping Beauty, The
Jennifer Stahl (center) as the Lilac Fairy. Photo by Erik Tomasson

The dancing was lovely, cohesive, if slightly restrained for my taste. Tomasson was after a pure classical line and a timeless look, and his ballerinas are pulled up as though a giant is lifting their heads. Backs are rigid, and everyone’s demeanor is reserved. Some soloists, such as the beautiful WanTing Zhao as the Lilac Fairy, felt a bit distant. The same qualities that made the soloists appear cold, were an asset for the women of the corps de ballet, who were, as always, a delight—dancing in total harmony. The Vision scene, in which the Lilac Fairy gives Prince Desiré a sneak peak at Aurora, was a highlight of design and symmetry.

French ballerina Mathilde Froustey appeared as Princess Aurora. She is petite and coltish, and charmingly humble. She conquered the Rose Adagio balances without a problem—though hanging onto the attitude position a tad too long—and likewise was steadfast with the rest of the Aurora’s challenging solos. Something more subtle was missing from her dancing, however, a rhythmic intensity, and dynamic shifts that were tied more to the music or to the story. I felt more warmly toward Luke Ingham, who made me feel his melancholy as the lonely Desiré and who was a discreet partner for Froustey.

Sleeping Beauty, The
Sasha De Sola as Aurora. Photo by Erik Tomasson

Wona Park and Lonnie Weeks were standouts in the Enchanted Princess-Bluebird pas de deux. Weeks bounds off the stage with a spring-like action. You can feel the music in your own skin by watching Park’s accented dancing; she was also notable as the Fairy of Courage. Like Weeks, the Jewels’ section’s two Cavaliers, Benji Pearson and Mingxuan Wang, showed off thrilling, airborne leaps.

Lastly, but never least, there’s the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, led at this performance by conductor Ming Luke. I doubt I’ve heard Tchaikovsky’s score played so lushly, with the warmth these horn players muster. For that reason alone, it may be more worthwhile to go see the company at home, rather than waiting for them to come to us.

“Sleeping Beauty” continues through Feb. 4.

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