• Photo: Erik Tomasson

The Sleeping Beauty

San Francisco Ballet

War Memorial Opera House

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director

Mar. 9-17, 2019

Reviewed: Mar. 9, 2019


Few can stride across a floor, arms raised to usher in festivity, as convincingly as Val Caniparoli, San Francisco Ballet’s reigning King Without a Crown. The story ballet fixture, be it Master of Ceremonies (as in this case), Duke, Lord, Priest, close relative, or concerned best friend or Man Friday, is the work’s advance man and influence peddler. He lets both the cast and audience know, “You’re gonna like this!”

It’s especially important in the case of “The Sleeping Beauty,” because no choreographer or stager has successfully painted over the “holidays” in the plot.  A scene entitled “The Hunt” offers a typical gaping hole to ponder: it opens on a clearing in the woods where no one is actively hunting and no prey is in evidence. We come to this ballet not for its story, but its ritual showmanship, and with much the same fervor as my grandmother would bring to a Bar Mitzvah. Ten minutes into the recitation, she’d turn to my grandfather to ask, “Has he made any mistakes?”

Opening night was Sasha De Sola’s Bat Mitzvah triumph in her interpretation of Princess Aurora. With ardor, tensile stamina, swelling élan, and Talmudic rendering of time-honored pas de deux, she led a production encumbered with expiring sets, dry ice excesses, ill-timed IDFs, and a careening bed chamber, out of the woods.

My grandmother, may she rest in peace, can do so assured that there were no mistakes of commission on opening night. Jennifer Stahl, as the Lilac Fairy, imparted comfort and reassurance as she sent disarming arms, legs, and inclined head wherever needed, to hypnotize, mesmerize, tranquilize or anesthetize every trick or trope troubling the royal court. Her co-conspirator fairies mostly excelled at their duties, outstanding among them Norika Matsuyama as stand-up Fairy of Courage. A word about the costumes by Jens-Jakob Worsaae, and that word is “lush.” Come for the pageant that collects around them!

I have harbored doubts that the Fairy of Darkness and her scurrilous scorpion-esque attendants is a superior concept to the Carabosse villain.  Wanting Zhao, wearing the one costume that seemed daunting to dance in full out, overcame its drape and uber-construction to dance her resentnik scheme in spitfire, dare-devil bursts. She more than won me over. The enormous phallic-looking spindle she wielded was hard to secret from even he tipsiest of guests or audience members. Its redemption came calling in steps along a spindling locus that ramped up excitement during crescendos.

Seeing the Cuban National Ballet’s Rose adagio tends to spoil you for all others. CNB Auroras repeat the balance-in-attitude sequence not twice but three times, and seem to hold it until a random audience member is so blown away that, exasperated, he shouts “¡Brava!” These are dancers who, in order to graduate from the national school, are required to hold an attitude balance for five minutes. While De Sola’s sturdy balances were brief, what impressed was not only did she hold them longer with each succeeding attempt, but how she moved out of them sustaining a moment of personal grace in each transaction with her partners. There was not the slightest indication of a sigh of relief when each balance ended because she transitioned so deftly from pirouette to penché that the movement read as a singular silken strand plucked from a cloud.

The quartet of princes danced by Henry Sidford, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, Hansuke Yamamoto and Steven Morse, showcased a shank of soloists, every one of whom can pass for a principal dancer.  Among the evening’s delights were the sparkling talents imparted with intrepid stage presence by students of the San Francisco Ballet School, in tandem with the harnessed spirit of the company’s corps de ballet.

Carlo Di Lanno as Prince Desiré, fitted out in his royal purple tunic and white tights, arrives Act II in a fleet-footed swirl of the stage that finishes in a resolute manege. He recovers from this spin around the demesne in a pensive mood, his best theatrical moment. After opening up a window so that we may glimpse his loneliness and ambivalence, his character seems to hide behind his princely duties. This may owe itself to the story’s incoherence and Di Lanno’s aversion to faking a romantic connection that, apart from one semi-somnambulant kiss, goes missing in the libretto.

Act III would be the envy of any wedding planner.

The Jewels—Diamond Fairy Dores André; Gold Fairy Thamires Chuvas; Silver Fairy Kamryn Baldwin; Sapphire Fairy, Ellen Rose Hummel; and Cavaliers, Benjamin Freemantle and Estebán Hernández—danced their name, flashing through harmonized steps like a bracelet of jangling charms. White Cat, a Marilyn Monroe (“’S Wonderful”) Elizabeth Powell and her Puss in Boots handler, Sean Orza, snarled and snuggled with aplomb, coquetry, and musical comedy-worthy timing.

The personable Koto Ishihara set the bar high as Enchanted Princess in the Blue Bird Pas de Deux with Lonnie Weeks. As Bluebird, Weeks manicured his brisé volé into volubly cadenced pendulum swings.

The bride and groom’s Grand Pas de Deux closed the event styling all the right moves, with De Sola’s Fish Dives going infinitely captivating. In Cuba, they might bestow upon her the well-deserved title of “Princesa Candela”!

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.