- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2006

England’s Royal Ballet, too long absent from our shores, is here this week with two programs that exemplify the strengths and curiosities of the current English style.

Interest centered on the company’s new-old production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” the ballet that has been the company’s signature work since its 1946 staging. Twelve years ago, the company gave the world premiere here of Anthony Dowell’s ultramodern version of “Beauty.” Now the company returns with a version staged by Artistic Director Monica Mason that seeks to revive the acclaimed 1946 version.

That version entranced with the splendor of its sets and its lavish costumes. (Not to mention Margot Fonteyn’s luminous dancing of Aurora.) This time around, the setting seems gloomy; the lighting dim. The stone facades look dull and grimy and the costumes pastel-pretty. It is still very grand, but it feels hermetic rather than expansive.

In the prologue, the court hierarchies are reflected in the structured ranks of this most formal of ballets. The Lilac Fairy presides over the scene — at Thursday’s opening, she was danced by Marianela Nunez with radiant grace. The ranks included the five fairies bringing gifts to the infant Aurora, their cavaliers, and the Lilac Fairies entourage, all of them dancing with grave formality and certain knowledge of their place in this royal universe — a situation possibly more relevant in England than here.

Suddenly into this self-perpetuating world flashes a gust of excitement and danger: The evil fairy Carabosse, not invited to the celebration, swirls in accompanied by four gorgeously ugly mice, bringing life and crisis to the scene. Genesia Rosato makes the most of this glittering creature. Her prediction that Aurora will die from a prick of her finger is trumped by the Lilac Fairy’s gift — Aurora will not die but linger in a long sleep till she is awakened by a kiss.

Finally, in Act I, Aurora enters, danced with charm and skill by Alina Cojocaru. She is an accomplished performer, with quick, light footwork but somewhat brittle — her arms and epaulement could be more plush, and she doesn’t respond to all the lushness in Tchaikovsky’s wondrous score. Her Prince was Johan Kobborg, a boyish, confident partner.

Because Carabosse is such an integral part of the plot, her demise at the end is given short shrift — from where I was sitting I couldn’t even see it happen.

The elaborate divertissements of the last act — Puss in Boots, Red Riding Hood — were delivered with humor and dispatch, and the Bluebird Pas de Deux was danced brightly by Sarah Lamb and Yohei Sasaki. Miss Cojocaru and Mr. Kobborg were properly grand in the fish-dive wedding pas de deux that brings the ballet to a happy close.

“Beauty” is being repeated with Miss Lamb this afternoon and Miss Nunez this evening. Both looked like ideal Auroras in earlier roles. Miss Cojocaru reprises the role tomorrow afternoon.

Earlier in the week, the company danced a program that included ballets by Kenneth MacMillan and a company member, Alastair Marriott, as well as two works by Frederick Ashton, the company’s founding choreographer.

Mr. Ashton’s “Enigma Variations” is a gem filled with brief, telling character sketches — duets, solos, trios — set in Edwardian times. Its sepia-toned backdrop is one of the most beautiful and evocative in memory — with arches framing garden vistas melding into a stairway leading to private rooms upstairs. The ballet exudes what Lincoln Kirstein described as “the English genius for tailoring, pantomime, and lyric poetry.”

The action describes a moment in the life of Edward Elgar. The composer, quietly despairing that his music was not a success, receives a telegram informing him that his “Enigma Variations” is going to be played by a famous conductor. Everyone looks joyous, but the audience must have been puzzled. Program notes definitely should have been included.

In “La Valse,” Mr. Ashton fills the stage with hordes of couples in ballroom finery swirling to the Ravel score, but the brooding power in the music is missing, and it seemed under-rehearsed both onstage and in the pit.

“Gloria,” set to Francis Poulenc’s incandescent music, is one of Kenneth MacMillan’s most impressive ballets.

Women in ghostly white; men in bodysuits splotched with mud and blood, their brimmed helmets placing it in the era of World War I. Here the power comes from inventive, abstract movement, which sustains the bleak mood with searing intensity.

“Tanglewood,” a recent work by Mr. Marriott, showed promising talent and was well danced, illuminated by violinist Vasko Vassilev’s sterling performance of Ned Rorem’s score.

***

WHAT: England’s Royal Ballet

WHEN: Today at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., tomorrow at 1:30

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

TICKETS: $47 to $112

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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