Dance review: Nashville Ballet’s terrific ‘Beauty’ reawakens at TPAC this weekend

sleepingbeautyThe Sleeping Beauty is the grandest of all storybook ballets. This amazing piece, first performed in 1890, conjures a fairy-tale world of silver and gold, of good versus evil, and of idealized romantic love. Surely, no other ballet requires as many tutu-clad ballerinas to engage in as much perfectly synchronized dancing. Few productions ever do it full justice.

This weekend, Nashville Ballet is mounting a fine production of The Sleeping Beauty at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall. There was certainly much to admire in Thursday night’s final dress rehearsal. The scenery and costumes, set appropriately enough in the 17th-century France of fairy-tale author Charles Perrault, are sumptuous and believable. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Nathan Fifield plays Tchaikovsky’s familiar score with color and vigor. The dancing is phenomenal.

Paul Vasterling, the ballet’s artistic director, has made many wise choices in this production. His intelligent cuts, especially in Act 2, streamline the ballet into a manageable length without garbling the narrative or eviscerating the characters. We still comprehend, for instance, that Prince Désiré is an existentially lonely character, even though much of his introductory material in Act 2 has been eliminated. Vasterling’s sense of basic stagecraft is also outstanding. The Sleeping Beauty is a busy ballet that has a large corps onstage almost all of the time. Vasterling’s straightforward, commonsense blocking keeps the eye focused where it needs to be.

Arguably the director’s best decision was to present the original 1890 choreography of Marius Petipa, with only the addition of new choreography for the Garland Waltz in Act 1. Classical ballet in the 19th century entered its golden age with The Sleeping Beauty, and even after 120 years Petipa’s choreography is a marvel to behold. Few ballets boast as much elegant and refined dancing en pointe. Nashville Ballet’s dancers have the technique and artistry to pull it off.

Kayla Rowser and Sadie Bo Harris are sharing the title role this weekend, and on Thursday night Rowser made a strong impression. Small in stature, Rowser is rarely able to dominate the full stage. Her gift, it seems, is an innate ability to sparkle and shine in whatever quadrant of the stage she happens to be in. She readily conveyed the grace and poise of a young princess, who was clearly thrilled to be the object of so much romantic attention from her young suitors. Her dancing, especially in the Act 1 “Rose Adagio,” was delicate, crystalline and expressive.

Alexandra Meister is a fully satisfying Lilac Fairy. She exudes a kind of patrician elegance and quiet confidence that seems a perfect fit for her character. One warm smile from this Lilac Fairy is all it takes to make the evil Carabosse cringe with fear. Meister makes the most of her appearances, dancing always with beautifully inflected and incisive motions.

Christopher Stuart, who is sharing the role of Prince Désiré this weekend with Jon Upleger, doesn’t get much time to establish his character. He’s onstage for only a few minutes in Act 2 before Vasterling’s cuts fast-forward us into the Vision Scene. Nevertheless, Stuart adequately establishes himself as a lonely heir presumptive. His dancing was athletic but never needlessly showy.

Former Nashville Ballet dancer Eric Harris was magnificent in the role of Carabosse. The Sleeping Beauty is unusual in the amount of mime that it requires from the dancers – this ballet was like a proto-silent movie. Harris’ movements were larger than life and thoroughly entertaining, especially when his long fingers waggled like daggers.

Act 3 of The Sleeping Beauty has always struck me as being tacked on. The act famously includes the cameo appearances of other fairy tale characters, such as Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and Cinderella. They seem to add little to the story as a whole. That said, Mollie Sansone was an amazing Princess Florine. Her balances were steely, her dancing radiant.

Elizaveta Dvorkina’s scenery and costumes colorfully suggested the fairy-tale world of 17th-century France without slipping into Disney cliché. One was almost tempted to break out the Husqvarna lawn equipment at the end of Act 1, when the Lilac Fairy covered the sleeping kingdom in protective vines and undergrowth. Scott Leathers’ lighting and effects always kept the story focused.

The quality of an orchestra’s performance can usually make or break a production of The Sleeping Beauty. Tchaikovsky’s music is the heart of this ballet, and dragging tempos are fatal to fairies. Fifield and the NSO always provided rhythmically vital and sensitive accompaniment.

The Sleeping Beauty opens Friday, Oct. 19 and runs through Sunday. If you want to live happily ever after, you’ll want to catch one of this weekend’s shows.

If you go

Nashville Ballet presents Sleeping Beauty at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall, 505 Deaderick St. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19 and Saturday, Oct. 20 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21. Tickets are $35 to $85. Call 782-4040 or click here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.