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Review: 'Sleeping Beauty' Shows Louisville Ballet's History, Progress

Shelby Shenkman
Sam English
Shelby Shenkman

Friday’s opening performance of “The Sleeping Beauty” began with three generations of Louisville Ballet leadership taking their place in front of the grand drape — and it represents, in some ways, the group's progress over the 65 years being celebrated this season.

This version is one that former artistic director Alun Jones created for the Louisville Ballet in 1987. Former principal dancer Helen Starr staged it. And Jones’ sets and costumes (the latter co-designed with Peter Farmer) have been carefully restored from that previous production.

In the Prologue alone, this production fields about 60 performers. An impressive feat, as the full-time company numbers 26 dancers and the trainee company 15. The crowd scenes fill the stage, and their groupings complement the massive palace sets Jones provides.

The size of the company has an impact on this grandest of classical story ballets, as many of the dancers are doing double and triple duty, dancing multiple roles, during the Prologue and succeeding three acts.

The ballet becomes an endeavor in stamina, as well as artistry and technique. For example, the charming Garland Dance in Act Two on opening night seemed tired and didn’t sparkle as much as the Prologue divertissements had. And it must also be noted that the trainee company dancers are much more accomplished at the end of this season than they were in the season opener, “Swan Lake," in which their swans were quite clunky.

Technique is paramount, for the choreography makes challenging and precise demands on many of the dancers. In the Prologue divertissements of the Fairies (Ashley Thursby, Emily Reinking O’Dell, Christy Corbitt, Annie Honebrink and Erin Langston Evans), as well as in Princess Aurora’s variations (Natalia Ashikhmina on opening night), there are several extended pointe sequences, with no partner, and the dancer is frequently moving on pointe in a demi plié — very challenging.

Overall, they met the challenge.

Starr’s coaching can be seen, in part, in the delicate fluidity and precision that was seen in the women dancers’ attention to hand gestures. At times I felt transported back to the times I had seen Starr dance in the 1990s, this fillip bringing her elegance and refinement to my mind’s eye.

In general, this attention to detail by individual dancers led to most of the group variations having the illusion of unison.

Ashikhmina was partnered by Mark Krieger as Prince Florimund on opening night. Together they created an elegant and appropriately regal couple. In particular, their Act Three variation was well-received. The iconic fish dives (not part of the original Petipa 1890 production) happened deceptively quickly and easily, and in the final tableau there was a palpable sense of accomplishment from both Ashikhmina and Krieger as they held that final pose, as the audience thundered their appreciation.

This telling of "Sleeping Beauty" would not happen without the Lilac Fairy, and Helen Daigle brings a supernal strength and peacefulness to the actions of the Fairy; her leitmotif exudes peace into the audience. In contrast, the ever-morphing Kateryna Sellars throws herself into the role of the excluded Carabosse with full Grimm-like aplomb.

Act Three is dedicated to the wedding celebrations of Aurora and Florimund so, of course, there are a panoply of guests to dance their joy at this celebration. These guests are drawn from other Fairy Tales.

In this production, not all of the guests dance, and one wonders if this is an acknowledgement of the lateness of the hour. Nonetheless, the technical highlight of these variations is The Bluebird and Princess Florine pas de deux (Ryan Stokes and Erica De La O on opening night).

Stokes seems mostly effortless in the bird-like curves and swerves of the choreography; and in his second solo came closest to the arced silhouette of this character. De La O is charming as Florine. Rob Morrow and Jordan Martin, as Puss in Boots and The White Cat, respectively, injected lightness and humor into the proceedings.

Leif Bjaland conducts the Louisville Orchestra for this production. And from the first assured, bright attack of the opening chords of the overture, it was clear dancer and audience alike were in good hands. The orchestra sparkled under his baton, with a clean, precise approach to the score. We were never in doubt, musically, about the intentions of the characters.

An ambitious enterprise, this was a fine ending to the 65th anniversary of the Louisville Ballet. Regular audiences should be eager to follow the promised "enchantment" of next season.