Whether paired with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom on stage, orchestrated by Tchaikovsky for ballet or adapted by talents as diverse as Walt Disney and Matthew Bourne, sleeping Beauty is not a title that is left to sleep long. Between here and Greensboro, the title appeared more than a dozen times on our cultural calendars between 2005 and 2020.
So it’s a bit of a shock to find the world premiere of Charlotte Ballet Sleeping Beauty: A fairytale classic, one of the first cultural events in Charlotte to be canceled with the outbreak of COVID in March 2020, lay dormant for more than two years before finally bursting into life. It ends this weekend at the Knight Theater.
In fact, it had been more than three years since the Charlotte Symphony last performed the Tchaikovsky score live at the Knight Theater — but not that quite Score. Mikhail Pletnev’s benchmark recording with the Russian National Orchestra lasts two hours and 45 minutes, about 75 minutes longer than usual Nutcracker Perfomance. So if by “tailored” you were hoping Charlotte Ballet and choreographer Matthew Hart meant trimmed, you can breathe a sigh of relief.
Even more exciting, the fairytale concept embraces a format that some ballerinas might find heretical, incorporating spoken narration into the dance. Obviously, the spoken narration invites a more intimate interaction between the cast and the audience, particularly the ankle-biters that adults may have drawn to the Knight Theater with them.
But really, what might seem unusual for ballet fans is absolutely essential for parents and children who attend Symphony Saturday morning concerts and are drawn to the Belk Theater by the lure of Francis Poulenc babySerge Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolfor similar tariffs.
Traci Gilchrest-Kubie, who portrays little Princess Aurora’s loving nurse, is our graceful, groundbreaking narrator. When the company was still known as NC Dance Theatre, Gilchrest-Kubie was a longtime principal dancer, but she has moved within the organization over the past 10 years and now serves as repetiteur – rehearsal director if you don’t speak ballet – for both Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II. She has also worked behind the scenes directing several company productions, as she does here alongside Charlotte Ballet II director Christopher Stuart.
While the game plan didn’t specify whether Stuart or Gilchrest-Kubie was responsible for the narrative script (perhaps both?), it was commendably spare, pleasantly parsimonious like Prokofiev’s lover Peter. Apparently modeled after Marius Petipa’s original 1890 choreography, Hart allows himself and his dancers some strikingly whimsical moments. Perhaps the most poignant of these came when Rees Launer as Puss in Boots and Meredith Hwang as the White Cat danced their pas de deux at Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund’s gala wedding reception.
If the carefully meowing music, which abruptly descends into hisses and scrapes, sounds oddly familiar, that’s because Disney wickedly applies it to the climax, when Sleeping Beauty finds a spindle high in an abandoned tower of her castle and fulfills herself on her finger stings the curse of the evil fairy Maleficent. Not to be outdone by Disney’s irreverence, Hart had Puss twerk to the same macabre music.
The magical role of Princess Aurora will be shared by no fewer than four dancers from now until the final matinee on May 8, but that hardly means the ballerinas’ burden has been lightened. Sarah Hayes Harkins, who played Aurora on opening night, was set to play the title role twice more, but she was also set to take Gilchrest-Kubie’s narration role in three other performances, so she had lines and rehearse steps.
Meanwhile, Harkins’ premiere partner, James Kopecky as Prince Florimund, had planned two more roles as Aurora’s intended suitor, five as her father the king, and three more as Prince West, one of the marriage prospects the princess had on the ill-fated April 16th birthday ball
One of the most rewarding qualities of Charlotte Ballet’s extravaganzas, for audiences and dancers alike, remains the freedom the company allows its principal dancers – encouraging them to bring their own style and personality to every role they play, instead of enforcing a fade and boring uniformity.
So you’ll find a pleasing individuality in Harkins’ Aurora as it infuses her with regal elegance, along with touches of youthful joy, mischievousness and a hint of solitude. Other Auroras sharing the role (Emerson Dayton, Amelia Sturt-Dilley, and Isabella Franco) might strike you as more nubile, childish, flirty, or in love.
As Florimund, Kopecky is almost pathologically sensitive and sincere, an absolute dream ship for the naïve young bastards in the audience, but I expect Josh Hall, who was cast in the role of King on premiere night, will awaken older libidos as he takes the Prince takes over, paired with Dayton in her first season with Charlotte Ballet.
Kopecky’s majesty, on the other hand, harmonized well with Harkins’ spirit world – and provided a delicious contrast to Colby Foss’ flamboyant interpretation of Carabosse, Tchaikovsky’s evil fairy.
Of course the sleeping Beauty That Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, former Artistic Director of the Charlotte Ballet, premiered here in 2012 is still ingrained in the company’s DNA, so a crossdressing carabosse won’t come as a total shock to loyal subscribers. But Disney’s Maleficent can also be cited as part of the development of Hart’s Carabosse. As Tchaikovsky stretched the rather thin plot to epic length, he relied largely on celebrations, a Sweet 16, and a wedding heaped on top of the original christening.
Disney wanted drama, so he didn’t dismiss Carabosse after the opening scene, or even after the birthday party, where Tchaikovsky started the tradition of having her dress up and smuggling a contraband spindle into the kingdom. No, she’s still a century or so later, in Disney’s scenario and in Hart’s, preventing Prince Florimund from waking his beloved and providing a much-needed resistance to the preordained outcome.
Foss’ prowess requires a counterbalance stronger than the magically challenged Florimund, so the Lilac Fairy, “the wisest of the fairies” according to Nurse, is lifted in Hart’s scenario just like Carabosse. In fact, with Sarah Lapointe’s splendour, vigor and poise, you can argue that Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy are the plum roles in it Fairytale classic rather than Aurora and Florimund, although Harkins and Kopecky master the most demanding choreographies.
Sharing the Lilac performance with three other dancers, Lapointe will spend most of this Charlotte Ballet performance as Aurora’s mother, the Queen. When Foss isn’t cooking up Carabosse’s meanness, he trades places with Andrés Trezevant, who comes across as very carefree on premiere night as Catalabutte, the pushy and slightly pompous page who presides over every ceremony.
While the costumes designed for him by Peter Docherty are nowhere near as funky, gnarly and spectacular as Carabosse’s outfits, Trezevant has been granted a wardrobe change after the 100-year hiatus, brandishing his scepter in a purple and blue livery for Aurora’s birthdays before you rocking a copper and blue ensemble for the wedding.
While Docherty’s setting isn’t quite as flashy as his costumes, Jennifer Propst’s lighting design dramatically contrasts the daylight of the public celebrations with the murky gloom of the sleeping kingdom and castle. Aside from the dimly lit appearance of the Sleeping Beauty behind a misty sheet, Docherty and Propst combine a beautiful effect when the Lilac Fairy’s magic first kicks in. Tendrils descend dramatically from the fly floor, covering most of the yard as we head towards the break blackout.
The intermission has added charm thanks to the nurse’s ongoing narration. Before dozing off in front of the proscenium and disappearing towards the wings, Gilchrest-Kubie announced the 20-minute intervals and drew our attention to the slow-moving clock projected high above center stage. Only a single minute hand moves clockwise around the clock after the lights come on. Only the dial has been reconfigured so that we gradually count to 100 like a speedometer, instead of the usual 12 or 60 as Sleeping Beauty’s sleep ebbs away.
Compared to Aurora’s centuries-long coma, the two years we had to wait for it Fairytale classic are nothing to complain about. On the contrary, we have our own ballet awakening to celebrate.