When Ben Stevenson, the former artistic director of the Houston Ballet, first presented The Sleeping Beauty in 1990, he brought in celebrated British ballerina Margot Fonteyn to coach the company’s dancers. The production, which marked the Tchaikovsky ballet’s 100th anniversary, featured a stirring score by the Russian composer, along with lavish costumes and sets by Tony Award winner Desmond Heeley. It was a huge success.
Now, 30 years later, Stevenson’s Sleeping Beauty remains a landmark for Houston Ballet with classical, technically-demanding movements, richly drawn characters, and a heady mix of drama and humor. Heeley’s original costumes and sets are featured once again.
The ballet follows the story of Princess Aurora. When the evil fairy Carabosse isn’t invited to Aurora’s baptism, she curses the child to die, but the Lilac Fairy steps in and changes the curse. Instead of dying, Aurora will fall asleep for 100 years and be awakened when kissed by her true love.
As is usual for Stevenson’s work, Sleeping Beauty is filled with strong, multi-dimensional female characters. Bridget Kuhns, one of four women to appear as Carabosse over the show’s run in Houston, says her approach to the character has changed since she debuted in the role five years ago.
“The first time I did Carabosse, I just did her completely evil, partly because I was really nervous, and it’s easy to be tense and be mad,” she says. “This time I want to show more depth to her character. Instead of just, You didn’t invite me? I’m mad! I’m trying to get to, Wow, you didn’t invite me? I’m hurt by that. I’m looking for depth and variety in her character.”
The other fairies give Aurora gifts such as beauty or song. Instead of a gift, Carabosse curses Aurora but Kuhns doesn’t believe that wasn’t the fairy’s original intention. “I like to think that if she had been invited, Carabosse would have given Aurora the gift of determination,” she says. “That’s a quality that Carabosse has, and I like to think she would have passed that on to Aurora, if she hadn’t been insulted.”
The role of Aurora, which is being performed by Yuriko Kajiya on opening night, is considered one of the most exacting and technically demanding for female dancers. She’s on stage for most of the three-act performance. In the first act, she’s seen as a vibrant young woman, filled with hope about the future. The act is also home to Aurora’s “Rose Adagio,” which is among the most famous pieces of classical choreography for women, requiring the strength and stamina to perform multiple long balances and a flurry of turns on pointe, all the while appearing to float effortlessly.
In the second act, Aurora’s been put magically to sleep but appears in a vision to Prince Florimund (known as Désiré in some productions), who’s being led to her by the Lilac Fairy. She’s elusive and always just outside his reach. And in the third act, she’s awakened and falling in love. She’s elegant and mature. Throughout the entire show, Stevenson’s choreography is clean and exact, without being rigid or mechanical.
Kuhns has a romantic read of Aurora’s relationship with the prince. When we met Florimund in Act II, he is already searching for a deeper love that transcends beyond the trappings of royalty, she says. He finds that love when he meets Aurora. And he doesn’t need a spell to help him see it either, Kuhns adds.
“It isn’t just, ‘Wake up, I love you; let’s get married.’ All through the second act the prince is seeing Aurora in a vision given to him by the Lilac Fairy,” she says. “And I like to think the Lilac Fairy has been putting the prince in Aurora’s dreams while she’s sleeping. So that when she wakes up—yes, it’s the first time they actually meet, but still, they recognize each other from their dreams.”
Thru Mar 8. Tickets from $25. Wortham Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-523-6300. More info and tickets at houstonballet.org.