Theatre Preview: Royal NZ Ballet, Sleeping Beauty

As Princess Aurora, Stella Abrera takes on one of ballet's most demanding roles. Photo / Supplied
As Princess Aurora, Stella Abrera takes on one of ballet's most demanding roles. Photo / Supplied

The Sleeping Beauty, one of the most loved and often-performed classical ballets, has a well-known story which sees the life of a princess caught between the forces of good and evil.

Cursed at her birth by the evil fairy Carabosse, Aurora is fated to prick a finger and die.

The outcome of the curse is reduced by the intervention of the good Lilac Fairy, and the princess falls into a sleep for 100 years, destined to be awakened by the kiss of a handsome prince who will become her husband.

The storybook setting has a lush symphonic score by Tchaikovsky, played here by the Auckland Philharmonia, and the dancing - created in 1890 - remains one of the most challenging in the classical repertoire.

The famous ballet takes to the stage at the Civic Theatre in Auckland next week, with 32 dancers, choreographed by Greg Horsman, nearing the completion of a six-week national tour.

The sumptuous sets, props, masks and costumes are all new, designed by former RNZB artistic director Gary Harris. A total of 200 costumes have been created in-house, each with shoes to match, with 70 headdresses, hats and tiaras, five sets of fairy wings, and 30 tutus with 5000 sequins sewn on by hand.

In addition, the production features masks and suits created by Weta Workshop and worn by featured characters - watch out for a pair of cats, Carabosse's evil henchmen, and the fire-breathing dragon which the prince has to slay to reach the sleeping princess.

The fine dancing of the company is given the added cachet of international performers. American guest artist Stella Abrera, an experienced soloist with the American Ballet Theatre known for her grace and lyricism and assured technical excellence, is making her international debut as Princess Aurora at the invitation of artistic director Ethan Stiefel, who says: "We are lucky to have her. Stella is a wonderful accomplished artist."

The role is one of the ultimate tests for any ballerina. It requires outstanding musicality and the purest classical technique for the difficult sets of variations which are hallmarks of the choreography, and the ability to convey various aspects of Aurora's personality and emotional experiences.

Abrera has given a good deal of thought to the challenges she faces. "I am familiar with the role, as I have understudied it several times over the years with ABT, and I had just enough time with the company to put the rest together before the tour started. The more I dance her, the more I learn about her.

"The music is challenging to dance with. It is rich and complex and requires split-second timing. However, it was created for ballet and there are moments of sheer perfection scattered through the work, where the music swells up under the movement, and everything is fused together. For me, those are moments of pure joy."

Getting inside Aurora's skin was the biggest challenge. "I had to find out who she is, how she works, what we have in common, so I can bring her qualities out in my dancing. Although Aurora is only 16 years old, she's definitely not a child. She's an aristocratic young woman on the verge of adulthood, raised to take responsibility.

"She has had a happy, protected childhood with a loving family, but also with a shadow hanging over her life.

"On her 16th birthday, regardless of what else may happen, she has to choose a husband and be ready to settle down, raise a family, take part in the political life of the kingdom.

"In the Rose Adagio at her coming-of-age ceremony, all of that is symbolically expressed as she dances what is really an extended solo. She dances briefly with each of four suitors in turn, completing a full circle with their support while balancing en pointe. As she dances, Aurora is finding a way to balance her independence against the requirement to marry, showing who she is, Aurora, not just the princess."

Aurora pricks her finger on a rose sneaked into her birthday ceremony by Carabosse and is lying in a state of deep sleep, with her body unable to move.

"When the Lilac Fairy conjures her up in the Vision Scene to convince the prince to hack his way through the forest to find her, it isn't actually the princess dancing, just a mirage.

"So I have to find another way to dance her, to embody the part of her that is her spirit, with just enough of the real Aurora to catch the prince's imagination.

"And finally, after the awakening, there's a whirlwind wedding, with all the formalities of the court, the allure of the unknown man she is about to marry, the possibility of romance to come, her joy at having survived beyond her birthday, and the realisation that she is now a woman.

"All of that has to be conveyed while performing the most demanding dancing."

Abrera has enjoyed her time in New Zealand and hopes to return with her husband, fellow ABT soloist Sascha Radetsky, to explore the outdoors and cuisine together. She greatly admires the commitment of the company's dancers to their art and looks forward to seeing how they develop under Stiefel's artistic direction.

The newest member of the RNZB, 30-year-old Spaniard Sergio Torrado, dances the role of Prince Desire, initially disenchanted by the realities of the overgrown forest, subsequently all fired up by the mission to rescue the sleeping Princess and make her his wife. In the finale, he must show the court that he has all the necessary qualities to become Aurora's consort.

A former soloist with the San Francisco Ballet and principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet, Torrado has considerable expertise in the bravura displays executed by classical ballet's leading prince. He provides a faultless partner for Aurora and brings the necessary athleticism, good looks and aristocratic bearing to the role.

Also known for his dual performance as Sergio/Rothbart, the leading male dancer in The Black Swan movie, Torrado's favourite roles are Albrecht in Giselle and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. He has extensive experience in dancing Balanchine and Robbins works, and would seem to be a good fit with the RNZB's repertoire next year, which includes works by Balanchine and Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied in a NYC (New Young Classic) season and a new version of Giselle.

Snowboarding is Torrado's favourite activity when he's not dancing, and he hopes to experience the best conditions at Wanaka as soon as he is free to travel down there.

While Abrera and Torrado are the number one cast for The Sleeping Beauty, alternate casts also offer their own delicately nuanced interpretations of the roles of Aurora and Desire. Watch for Tonia Looker partnered by Brendan Bradshaw, and Abigail Boyle with Qi Huan.

Performance

What: The Sleeping Beauty

Where and when:

Municipal Theatre, Napier, today and tomorrow

Civic Theatre, Auckland, November 30-December 4

Civic Theatre, Rotorua, December 7-8

- NZ Herald

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