By Paul Horsley
The Sleeping Beauty is a ballet with a bit of something for everyone: There is some actual storytelling in the middle, with a dashing Prince revivifying a comatose ballerina-Princess with a kiss, and there’s a cornucopia of classical ballet of the most rigorous kind in the outer sections. The Kansas City Ballet’s production of the Petipa/Tchaikovsky classic, with the choreography filled out by artistic director Devon Carney, is in many ways an exemplary blend of fresh-faced dancing and mellifluous staging. If the production offered some rather around-the-bend costumes and sets (by British designer Peter Farmer), it brought to the fore some fine dancing in the lead roles, most notably that of Tempe Ostergren as Princess Aurora and Lamin Pereira dos Santos as Prince Désiré. (They alternate with Molly Wagner and Liang Fu throughout the run). It was, amazingly, the first full performance of this evening-length standard in the company’s 59-year history (though Act III has been presented separately, as a show-your-chops confection), and it was warmly received by audience on Opening Night, March 31st, at the Kauffman Center’s Muriel Kauffman Theatre.
The execution of large-scale ballets has been made possible in recent years at KCB by a considerably expanded company of dancers, which Devon and the company have effected through the addition of a second company, KCB II, and a Trainee Program, which have together brought 15 or so gifted youngsters into the mix (plus 26 full-company artists and four apprentices). This change has brought a bright, youthful appeal to large-scale ballets, and it has helped fill out the corps for scenes such as the Nymphs Dance (with 16 women in a series of dreamlike, vaguely synchronized formations).
To be sure, KC Ballet currently has a choice group of extremely fine dancers, yet the overall effect of the larger group is to emphasize fullness over razor-sharp, disciplined professionalism. This is a road the company has chosen to take, a means of building a large company on a manageable budget, and the public seems to be responding to it heartily. There are doubtless those who yearn for more of the intricate contemporary works that keep dance fresh and relevant, but in fairness Devon has also included repertoire of this type during his tenure here: Last April’s program included a harrowing Rite of Spring (by the young Adam Hougland) and the world premiere of Viktor Plotnikov’s extraordinary Vesna, one of the most inventive works this company has ever staged.
As a general rule, hard-core balletomanes adore the Prologue and Act III of Sleeping Beauty, with the basketsful of virtuosic variations and tableau-like pageantry, whereas those who believe that “story ballets” should actually tell stories often seem to enjoy Acts I and II with their imaginative retellings of the various Sleeping Beauty fairy-tales dating back several centuries. What helps the three-hour show cohere is Tchaikovsky’s music, which despite being the weakest of his three ballet scores contains enough good music to make the elements feel “of a piece.” This trimmed-down version was played fairly well, with beautiful solos throughout, by the Kansas City Symphony in the pit.
King Florestan (Anthony Krutzkamp) and his Queen (Pamela Carney) sat passively through much of the Prologue, watching the action unfold as the court celebrated Aurora’s baptism. Here we met Fairies of wide-ranging personalities (Lilac, Beauty, Generosity, Charm, Song and Temperament), Master of Ceremonies Catalabutte (Ballet Master Parrish Maynard, in a wig that made him look all the world like Franz Liszt), and the evil Carabosse (lit with sickly green hues à la Wicked Witch of the West), danced on Opening Night by Danielle Bausinger with a sort of over-the-top whimsy that is not uncommon in this role. (Actually the Russian tradition is to make this a drag part, though a woman can lend it a bit more of an “edge.”) The stage was further filled with Lilac Fairy Attendants, Nurses in weird, disc-like nanny-habits, slithery Carabosse attendants, and assorted Pages and Courtiers. Dancers from the KC Ballet School, carrying oversized garlands and whatnot, added stately cuteness.
The story parts of this ballet are more compelling to many because they are more personal: They allow one to focus on characters and relationships. In fact, the instant Tempe floated excitedly into the story in Act I, the stage became supercharged with kinetic energy (thanks, partly, to Trad A. Burns’ subtle lighting): She exuded a burst of charisma that was part charm, part grit, part solid technique. Her Rose Adagio and the ensuing ensembles were studied and fragile yet resolute. As each of the four suitors (Thom Panto as Chéri, Liang Fu as Charmant, James Kirby Rogers as Fortuné, Josh Bodden as Fleur de Pois) offered support for her pirouettes en pointe, she responded to each with a different flourish, ultimately deciding none was exactly what she was looking for.
Lamin commanded the opening of Act II, and as the hunt began—its muted, garnet-reds giving the eye a rest from the overwrought colors heretofore—he assumed a stern, melancholy demeanor: He is to marry the domineering Countess (Angelina Sansone), who appears to have been willfully costumed to look as if she’d stepped off the set of “Bonanza.” Even after the cheerfully vivacious Lilac Fairy (Kaleena Burks) assured has Désiré that Aurora is only temporarily bewitched, he remained troubled throughout his dance with Aurora’s Vision: She just didn’t seem quite “right.”
Tempe’s motions became deliberately muted and staid, but when she woke up so did Lamin, whose dancing has matured notably during in his short time with KC Ballet. (He joined in 2014.) Despite his still-youthful demeanor and limpid countenance, his dancing has taken on an elegant resonance.
The crowd-pleasing variations of Act III hardly need introduction: On the whole they were danced with confidence and an appropriate sense of fun. James Kirby Rogers and his two partners in the Pas de Trois (Amanda DeVenuta and Lilliana Hagerman) were like caffeinated Ziegfeld dancers. The flirty Bluebird (Dillon Malinski) was no match for the elusive Florine (Taryn Mejia). Naomi Hergott was a quick-witted Little Red Riding Hood, which she had to be in order to stay out of reach of the wily Wolf (Christopher Constantini). Emily Mistretta as White Cat and Joshua Bodden as Puss in Boots danced their parts ably but the comedic choreography felt stilted. The playfully colorful Act III costumes reminded me more of Disney glamour than of the elegance of 19th-century ballet.
The Sleeping Beauty runs through April 9th at the Kauffman Center. Call 816-471-8993 or go to kcballet.org.