Review: Charlotte Ballet Premieres Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tailored Classic
By Perry Tannenbaum
Whether paired with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom onstage, orchestrated by Tchaikovsky for ballet, or adapted by talents as diverse as Walt Disney and Matthew Bourne, Sleeping Beauty isn’t a title that sleeps for long. Between here and Greensboro, the title appeared more than a dozen times on our cultural calendars between 2005 and 2020. So it’s a bit of a shock to find that the Charlotte Ballet’s world premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tailored Classic, one of the first cultural events in Charlotte to be cancelled with the onset of COVID in March 2020, has slumbered more than two years before finally coming to life.
Actually, it had been more than three years since Charlotte Symphony last played the Tchaikovsky score live at Knight Theater. But not the whole score. Mikhail Pletnev’s benchmark recording with the Russian National Orchestra clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes, about 75 minutes longer than the typical Nutcracker performance. So if by “tailored” you were hoping that Charlotte Ballet and choreographer Matthew Hart mean trimmed – substantially trimmed – then you can breathe a sigh of relief.
More exciting, the fairy-tailored concept embraces a format that some balletomanes might find heretical, integrating a spoken narrative with the dance. Obviously, spoken narration invites a more intimate interaction between the performers and the audience, especially the anklebiters that adults may have dragged into Knight Theater with them. But really, what might seem outré to ballet fans is perfectly de rigueur for parents and kiddies attending Symphony’s Saturday morning concerts, drawn to Belk Theater by the lure of Francis Poulenc’s Babar, Serge Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, or similar fare.
Traci Gilchrest-Kubie, portraying little Princess Aurora’s doting Nurse, is our graceful trailblazing narrator. Once upon a time, you may recall, Gilchrest-Kubie was a perennial lead dancer when the company was known as NC Dance Theatre, but she has transitioned within the organization over the past 10 years and now serves as Repetiteur – rehearsal director, if you don’t speak ballet – for both CharBallet and CharBallet II. She has also worked behind the scenes, staging several company productions, as she also does here alongside Charlotte Ballet II director Christopher Stuart.
While the playbill didn’t specify who was responsible for the narrative script, it was worthy of credit, pleasingly spare like Prokofiev’s beloved Peter. Turns out that the nifty narration was co-written by Hart and acting coach Jane Wymark. Ostensibly modeled after Marius Petipa’s original 1890 choreography, Hart allows himself and his dancers some strikingly whimsical moments. Perhaps the most pointed of these came when Rees Launer as Puss in Boots and Meredith Hwang as the White Cat danced their featured pas de deux at Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund’s gala wedding celebration.
If the tentative meowing music, abruptly segueing into hissing and clawing, sounds oddly familiar, it’s because Disney sacrilegiously applied it to the climactic moment when Sleeping Beauty finds a spindle high up in an abandoned turret of her castle and pricks her finger on it, fulfilling the Evil Fairy Maleficent’s curse. Not to be outdone by Disney’s irreverence, Hart had Puss twerking to that same macabre music.
The magical role of Princess Aurora will be timeshared by no fewer than four dancers between now and the closing May 8 matinee, but that hardly implies that the ballerinas’ burdens have been lightened. Sarah Hayes Harkins, who played Aurora on opening night, was fated to play the title role twice more, but she was also slated to take on Gilchrest-Kubie’s narrative role at three other performances, so she had lines and steps to rehearse. Meanwhile, Harkins’ opening night partner, James Kopecky as Prince Florimund, had two more turns scheduled as Aurora’s destined beau, five as her father the King, and three more as Prince West, one of the marriage prospects presented at the princess’s inauspicious 16th birthday ball.
One of the most rewarding qualities of CharBallet’s extravaganzas, for audiences and dancers alike, continues to be the freedom that the company allows to their principal dancers – encouraging them to bring their own style and personality to each role they play, rather than enforcing a bland and boring sameness. So you’ll find a gratifying individuality to Harkins’ Aurora as she pours regal elegance into her, along with touches of youthful delight, mischief, and a wisp of loneliness. Other Auroras sharing the role (Emerson Dayton, Amelia Sturt-Dilley, and Isabella Franco) might strike you as more nubile, childish, coquettish, or amorous.
As Florimund, Kopecky is almost pathologically sensitive and sincere, an absolute dreamboat for the naïve young fry in the audience, but I expect that Josh Hall, consigned to the role of King on opening night, will stir older libidos when he takes over as the destined Prince, paired with Dayton in her maiden season with CharBallet. Kopecky’s sublimity, on the other hand, chimed well with Harkins’ ethereality – and contrasted deliciously with Colby Foss’s flamboyant rendering of Carabosse, Tchaikovsky’s Evil Fairy.
Of course, the Sleeping Beauty that former CharBallet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux premiered here in 2012 is still deeply embedded in the company’s DNA, so a crossdressing Carabosse won’t be a total shock to loyal subscribers. But Disney’s Maleficent can also be cited as part of the evolution of Hart’s Carabosse. When Tchaikovsky stretched the rather thin storyline to epic length, he largely relied upon celebrations, a Sweet 16 and a wedding piled upon the original christening.
Disney wanted drama, so he didn’t discard Carabosse after the opening scene, or even after the birthday party, where Tchaikovsky began the tradition of having her disguised and smuggling a contraband spindle into the kingdom. No, she is still around a century later, in Disney’s scenario and in Hart’s, barring Prince Florimund from waking his ladylove and providing some sorely needed pushback against the predestined outcome.
Foss’s bravura requires a counterweight that’s stronger than the magically-challenged Florimund, so the Lilac Fairy, “wisest of the Fairies” according to the Nurse, is elevated as much as Carabosse in Hart’s scenario. In fact, with Sarah Lapointe’s sparkle, power, and serenity, you can make the case that Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy are the plum roles in this Fairy Tailored Classic rather than Aurora and Florimund, though Harkins and Kopecky do conquer the most challenging choreography.
Sharing the Lilac gig with three other dancers, Lapointe will actually spend most of this CharBallet run as Aurora’s mom, the Queen. When Foss isn’t making a meal of Carabosse’s malignity, he will trade places with Andrés Trezevant, looking very cavalier on opening night as Catalabutte, the officious and slightly pompous page who presides over every ceremony. While the costumes designed for him by Peter Docherty aren’t nearly as wicked, gnarly and spectacular as Carabosse’s outfits, Trezevant was accorded a wardrobe change after the 100-year intermission, wielding his scepter in a purple-and-blue livery for Aurora’s birthdays before rocking a copper-and-blue ensemble for the wedding.
While Docherty’s scenery is not quite as eye-popping as his costumes, Jennifer Propst’s lighting design dramatically contrasts the daylight of the public celebrations with the moody gloom of the sleeping kingdom and castle. Aside from the dimly lit apparition of the Sleeping Beauty behind a misty scrim, Docherty and Propst combine on a nice effect as the Lilac Fairy’s spell first takes hold. Vines descend dramatically from the fly loft, covering most of the courtyard as we move toward the intermission blackout.
Thanks to the Nurse’s ongoing narrative, there is extra charm to the intermission. Before nodding off in front of the proscenium and slipping away to the wings, Gilchrest-Kubie announced the 20-minute interval and drew our attention to the slowly moving clock projected high over centerstage. Just a single minute hand sweeps clockwise around the clock after the lights come up. Only the clockface has been reconfigured so we’re gradually counting up to 100 like a speedometer, instead of the usual 12 or 60, as Sleeping Beauty’s sleep flies by.
Compared to Aurora’s century-long coma, the two years we’ve had to wait for this Fairy Tailored Classic are nothing to complain about. On the contrary, we have a ballet wakening of our own to celebrate.