2007's a big year for Sleeping Beauty, that most grandiose of the Tchaikovsky-scored Petipa ballets, choreographed for the Imperial Ballet of Russia in 1890. New York City Ballet revived Peter Martins' 1991 version earlier this month. American Ballet Theatre premieres its all-new Sleeping Beauty - based, like Martins', on the original - in June. Even in Mad City, where our lone annual shot of professional ballet is almost always a Russian touring company performing Swan Lake, the dance scene returns after holiday break with the Moscow Festival Ballet's Sleeping Beauty in Overture Hall (Tuesday, Jan. 23, 7:30 p.m.).
The classic story of the sleeping princess who pricks her finger on a poison spindle and wakes up a century later in the arms of her prince was a mere bare-bones vehicle for some of Marius Petipa's most challenging choreography. The famous Rose Adagio is nerve-wracking - will the princess be able to stand on pointe in arabesque each time she lets go of a suitor's arm? The great arching temps du poisson jumps in the male variation of the Bluebird pas de deux are like flight, when well done. And for 19th century whimsy you can't beat the Puss in Boots pas de deux, a delectable precursor of Broadway's Cats.
Moscow Festival and its sister company, Russian National Ballet, which performed Swan Lake here last year to a sold-out Tuesday night house, are both directed by former Bolshoi principal Sergei Radchenko, 62, who's dedicated his life to keeping classical Russian choreography intact. "Sometimes I might make a little change in a pas de deux to meet the technical level of the dancers," he says. "Between the two companies there's a little variation in the waltz from Swan Lake's Act I. But overall the traditional choreography is untouchable."
That both companies are almost always on tour is testimony: Radchenko's productions are admirable. All that touring has payoffs. It's a great training ground for young Russian dancers and steady work for those who don't make the Bolshoi. These dancers earn their chops, and some of them are very good. Radchenko attributes this success to experience.
"In China they want us to do Swan Lake every day. A steady diet of that can be boring. But everywhere else, my dancers have the chance to do different programs - we can do any Petipa ballet the theater asks for. For the dancers it's very good. Their skills grow constantly because they're working all the time. It's not like doing two performances a month. If you perform every day you become more expert and get in better shape."
There are 45 dancers in this Sleeping Beauty, including principal Mukhanvet Kaliev, Prince Siegfried in the version of Swan Lake we saw last year. At 18 Kaliev was too immature for the role. But Radchenko says audiences in the States wanted to see him again, and I bet a year's experience looks good on him.
Still, when dancers do a different, demanding ballet in a new city every night (right now they're on a bus-based 17-week U.S. tour) they can't help looking road-weary. Sleeping Beauty's a great ballet, and bus-fatigued or not, Moscow Festival's show'll be a treat in this ballet-starved town. Even though it's Tuesday night it could easily sell out, and for our city's struggling upscale culture palace that's no small potatoes. We're lucky the Overture Center can afford to bring this ballet to town, but it's a far cry from American Ballet Theatre. We'll know we've really grown into our new state-of-the-art hall when we can see ballets by premier American companies flaunting their bold, athletic, born-in-New York style. It's one of the things our country still does best.