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'Beauty' Is in the Eyes of a Royal Tweaking

Dance review: Anthony Dowell's Royal Ballet restaging of 'Sleeping Beauty' isn't often beautiful but moves in interesting ways.


In a startling repudiation of Royal Ballet tradition, Anthony Dowell's 1994 restaging of "The Sleeping Beauty" refuses to provide a comforting vision of perfect order. Instead, it sets Marius Petipa's 1890 choreography in a world of toppling columns and skewed perspectives--a world literally off-kilter, viewed from below, as if the audience were trapped at the bottom of a well.

Perhaps familiar to local audiences from a home video edition and abridged PBS telecast, the Dowell "Beauty" arrived at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, more than ever seeming to reflect a growing public dismay with British royalty and social institutions. Dowell and designer Maria Bjornson not only give us ineffectual monarchs and nobles so overloaded with gaudy trappings they can scarcely move but also a dying landscape in which only the love of Aurora and her Prince offers hope for the future.

Unfortunately, the notion of a deliberately ugly "Beauty" just doesn't play. For starters, the pileup of clutter in the sets and costumes all but nullifies Petipa's choreographic design--what impact can an arabesque have when there's no air around the ballerina, and when her proportions have been cruelly distorted by what she's wearing? Moreover the storytelling is so consistently bungled that there's only one flash of genuine magic in three long hours: the moment when the Prince awakens Aurora with a kiss and a huge gray web covering the stage tears apart, flooding the lovers with light.

However, the Royal is still the Royal, even seen from the bottom of a well, and no American balletomane can afford to be blase about the level of classical breeding, expressive detail and sheer authority that Dowell's dancers command. You might prefer to see them dance this "Beauty" in practice clothes on a bare stage. Better yet, you might prefer to see them dance the glorious Ninette de Valois "Beauty" the company brought to the Shrine Auditorium in 1978 and '79. But in our own skewed and dying world, the sight of Darcey Bussell lavishing perfect balances on one, two, three, four suitors in the Rose Adagio can still bring you to your knees. And, no doubt, the three other, non-Bussell casts scheduled in Costa Mesa this week will provide wonders of their own.

More than ever, Bussell's remarkable stillness--her ability to seem always in repose while flowing through the most challenging step combinations in classical dance--projects a central ideal of British classicism at majestic scale. As usual, she is unsuitably partnered: this season by Stuart Cassidy, likable, hard-working but too short for her and unreliable technically, particularly when clean, steady terminations are required.

Shi-Ning Liu in the Jewels divertissement and William Trevitt as the Bluebird (the coda in particular) uphold Royal male prowess more impressively, and Dowell himself glowers and gesticulates skillfully as Carabosse, though scarcely with the unforgettable luxuriance-in-evil that Lynn Seymour brought to the role in 1978.

But, of course, "Beauty" always belongs to the beauties--the dancing fairies, gemstones, storybook heroines and other female soloists who create the elaborate tapestry of grace and refinement in which Aurora becomes the central figure. Costa Mesa has them in profusion this week.

Given the bleak outlook of the Dowell version, you can understand why the capable Zenaida Yanowsky appears tough-minded and even rather cold as the Lilac Fairy: a protective guardian spirit in a dangerous time of change. The other fairies, however, radiate the usual sweetness, with the opening night cast boasting the accomplished Deborah Bull (also a charming Princess Florine), Sarah Wildor and Nicola Roberts (both also glittering ornaments in the Jewels quartet), Genesia Rosato and Jane Burn.

In the few moments allotted her, Sandra Conley manages to give the Countess great intelligence and even soul. Finally, Larissa Bamber and Peter Abegglen bring maximum vivacity to the duet for Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat, though her mask makes her look like a fish, and his costume seems festooned with feathers rather than fur.

With the brass section sounding especially fit, the Pacific Symphony acquits itself honorably, though conductor Valery Ovsianikov opts for plodding, hyperdeliberate attacks that neutralize any sense of momentum in the fabled Tchaikovsky score. This "Beauty" isn't often beautiful, as theatrical spectacle or as musical interpretation, but how it moves is another matter entirely.

* The Royal Ballet dances its "Ravel Evening" tonight and Friday, 8 p.m.; "Sleeping Beauty," Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m. Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $20-$75. (213) 365-3500.

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