An Awakening to the Royal Ballet’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’

21 Aug

The last ‘Ballet in Cinema’ presentation to be shown in Seattle was the Royal Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty, starring Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin. Given my antsy attention span, Sleeping Beauty can be a difficult one for me to sit through, but having watched the DVD with Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli (the only other time I’ve watched any Sleeping Beauty) I knew what to do this time—abide by a mantra of “no plot, no character development.” Lo and behold, I found the experience to be quite enjoyable, and despite having seen the DVD, a different cast and a desire to do my part to support the ‘Ballet in Cinema’ series had me wanting to go. Unfortunately, attendance in Seattle gets a 1 out of 10—as in literally, I was one of ten people in the audience. I thought maybe Polunin’s abrupt resignation from the Royal Ballet would make this performance something of interest to more people, but that clearly wasn’t the case. The SIFF theatre is small so it was easy enough to eavesdrop (I swear I wasn’t trying!) and the couple behind me did in fact know about Cuthbertson’s bout with glandular fever and the subsequent, debilitating, post-viral fatigue syndrome, but not about Polunin’s departure, so it was interesting to see what news had made it across the pond.

Well, at least I had interest in seeing Polunin! There really isn’t much of him on YouTube, but I had heard the rave reviews through the grapevine and then the aforementioned abandonment heard ’round the world (or at least ’round Balletomanotopia). I have to admit that it was essentially impossible to separate that knowledge from my viewing of the performance, and I found myself wondering if he would look vacant or miserable, but he was far from it—in fact, he was brilliant. True, the “loss” of his talent on the stage at the Royal Opera House is unfortunate, but so too, would’ve have been the loss of his sanity. Tamara Rojo once said in an interview that oftentimes, extraordinary artists die tragic deaths (and that she enjoyed being sane too much to fully let herself go), and given that Polunin has candidly admitted to using some serious drugs, it’s scarily easy to picture him on that path.

A recent, must-read article, ‘A Dancer’s Demons’ by Julie Kavanagh illuminated some of Polunin’s past, and is probably the most honest portrayal of him, shedding light onto much of what happened, but without any scandal or sensationalism. From familial difficulties, to the fear he felt in the moments before he quit, I felt sorrow for him, and the simple fact remained that he admitted that he had no passion for ballet, and I know for me, living a life without passion is a fate worse than death. We so want to believe that every dancer is passionate about their job but it just isn’t true, and it’s not as black and white as dancers who are passionate and those who aren’t. Personally, I make a distinction between people who love ballet and those who are passionate about it, and then you also have dancers who are more in love with being good at something than they are ballet itself, and some like Polunin who only tolerate certain aspects of it, which for him is performing on stage. Regardless, even though it’s impossible to walk a mile in his shoes, at the very least, every human being knows what it’s like to be miserable so I’m glad he left the Royal Ballet, because he obviously needs to find inner peace more than anything else. I’m also glad he’s not giving up dancing entirely for the time being, now having joined the Stanislavsky Ballet and it’s also satisfying to know that he parted with the Royal Ballet amicably, since he’s agreed to perform Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand with Tamara Rojo again this coming season. Now, I’m not just saying this because I’m an Ashtonian Rojonian, but it’d be foolish not to film one of those performances!

Coincidentally, Polunin being cast as Armand (a role made on Nureyev) as well as the lead in Rhapsody (made on Baryshnikov) not to mention the incessant hailing by the media of Polunin as the next Nureyev/Baryshnikov, I have to wonder if casting in those roles exacerbated his feeling of entrapment, on top of the rigid discipline often employed in classical ballet. It has to be difficult to feel like you can be yourself when the public is asking you to be a carbon copy of someone that has existed before. I never thought that Prince Florimund would be a particularly desirable role for a danseur—forget one dimensional, he’s almost no dimensional! However, it’s funny how the lack of depth for the Prince also made him a blank canvas for Polunin to color as he wished. I also never expected to feel anything significant for the Prince, but with Polunin you could really get a sense that he was a true daydreamer, longing for more than what his mundane life had to offer—which, given everything that’s happened since Sleeping Beauty was broadcast, is easy to say in retrospect! Still, in partial thanks to Cuthbertson too, their chemistry really worked because their free-spiritedness translated into their roles so well.

For example, when Cuthbertson danced the Rose Adagio, I could really see the young woman’s silent protest to her father’s hackneyed scheme to marry her off ASAP to some random suitor before she could prick her finger on a spindle. Her Aurora wasn’t just innocent, shy, or elegant as the character is often danced, but truly searching for a way to reject the suitors without creating a kerfuffle (<–awesome word). Though I don’t necessarily think it was Petipa’s intention, I think today, the Rose Adagio can be played up as quite an empowering moment for women. In fact, something that occurred to me while watching this Sleeping Beauty was that a complete overhaul of the ballet has the potential to do so much for women—give Carabosse way more, amp up the tension between her and the Lilac Fairy, tweak the context in which the Rose Adagio is presented (but not the choreography), and all of a sudden you have a story revolving around powerful women (hell, even Genesia Rosato’s Queen magnanimously persuaded Gary Avis’s King Florestan to show mercy to the three girls with knitting needles he wanted to behead!). It’s interesting that in interviews right before the film began, Dame Monica Mason and others discussed the historical significance of the current production of Sleeping Beauty, which is a reconstruction of the staging that re-opened the Royal Opera House right after World War II. After such a dreadful period, Sleeping Beauty gave the audience something beautiful, even encouraging them to attend in less formal dress than was expected at the time because resources had been depleted by the war. How incredibly astute of Dame Ninette de Valois, to respond so wisely to the needs of society at the time, giving something to the people to inspire hopes and dreams, and an escape from the horrors they had just overcome via the war. Wouldn’t it be grand if a modernized Sleeping Beauty could do that for feminism today?

But I digress. It’s unfortunate that Cuthbertson will no longer be able to partner with Polunin, because they’re so achingly beautiful together. The vision scene was so exquisite I almost cried (again, just can’t seem to cry in public!), and both Cuthbertson and Polunin have such incredible acting skills that it was one of the most touching things I’ve ever seen (the music alone is enough to make you weep). It’s interesting because the Cuthbertson/Polunin partnership is something that must’ve added to the pressure cooker that Polunin was caught in—with Cuthbertson holding the mantle as the only English principal ballerina, there’s a lot of national pride being stirred into the mix, so partnering her comes with additional expectations and responsibilities…not good, for the already troubled Polunin. It’s funny—and a little upsetting—that in Kavanagh’s article, the Royal Ballet School director, Gailene Stock, said of his audition: “I walked into the room and saw the physique, the presence, the proportions—before he’d even done a plié I thought, ‘That’s it.’” Ballet has arrived at a point where teachers can identify physical attributes suited for ballet, and advancements in knowledge of kinesiology, anatomy, and medicine have made the care of dancers’ bodies take on a far greater role than in the past…but who’s nurturing the artists? A dancer like Polunin, who has trouble with finding passion and motivation needs a different kind of psychological encouragement to allow him to perform. If physical therapists can develop treatment specific to dancers, surely there can be a team of people catering to individual needs in terms of mental health too. I’m sure the practice exists to some extent, but at its current level, it may not be enough. Even Dame Monica admitted the longest she had spoken with Polunin was when he quit, and not even teachers in a ballet student’s formative and professional years are necessarily equipped to deal with psychological and emotional issues—though some are and they are truly amazing.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin in the Vision Scene:

In the end, Cutherbertson/Polunin were both unrestrained and refined, and it made for a riveting Sleeping Beauty. I know I haven’t exactly sang the praises of Imperial Russian ballets…but as far as Sleeping Beauty is concerned, I find it growing on me like a briar rose—thorns remind me of things I detest *cough* Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood *cough*, but the moments of magnificence that blossom before your eyes are wondrous spectacles to behold.

Aaand because I couldn’t fit this anywhere else in the post, I have to briefly praise Yuhui Choe’s Princess Florine in the Bluebird pas de deux—so delicate, so ADORABLE. Love. Her. So. Much.

Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell in the Bluebird Pas de Deux:

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5 Responses to “An Awakening to the Royal Ballet’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’”

  1. wiwaxia August 22, 2012 at 3:40 am #

    Thanks for sharing a “A Dancer’s Demons”–it was a very insightful article.

    • youdancefunny August 22, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

      No problem! Glad you liked it!

  2. Sara Grosoli August 22, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    A feminist Beauty? Fascinating idea…Why don’t you try your hand at a Kammerspiel version of it?

    • youdancefunny August 22, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

      Haha, I would if I had the resources! And if I knew what “Kammerspiel” was…off to Google!

  3. Images of Dance August 28, 2012 at 3:53 am #

    An amazing and touching post. Looking forward to seeing Sergei and Tamara again.

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