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Boston Ballet performs a radiant 'Beauty'

With Tchaikovsky's finest ballet score, Marius Petipa's most eloquent choreography, and numerous solo opportunities for dancers not playing leading roles, ''The Sleeping Beauty" is the greatest challenge in the classical repertory. Boston Ballet met and conquered that challenge last night, in the most luminous performance of ''Beauty" I've seen the company give in its 41-year history.

''Beauty" is a ballet about order and hierarchy, echoing the czarist regime for which it was created, and also echoing the ethos of every classical ballet troupe, whatever its politics. Aurora, the leading role, is the thread stitching the work together. But even in the prologue, where she is a mere babe in arms, there are delectable little variations for the fairies who come to bless her christening. The tone of those solos varies from languid to insistent. The Songbird Fairy's twittering number is always a favorite, and last night Rie Ichikawa was a fluttering delight in the part.

Aurora is a test of a ballerina's skill and stamina -- and of her ability to make it all look effortless in the interest of creating a character. You should care about the apparently doomed teenage princess, not about whether she can survive the treacherous balances of the ''Rose Adagio."

In last night's opening of the production that ends Boston Ballet's season, Lorna Feijoo was a radiant Aurora. ''Beauty's" first act is a killer for the ballerina: a giddy solo entrance, then the courtship ritual of the ''Rose Adagio," then another solo, this one hinting at a coming of age, then the finger prick around which the plot is built. Feijoo was actually not flawless technically. She had to camouflage a pirouette about to spin out of her control. All dancers have such moments; the excellent ones, and Feijoo is among them, can save them and move on. She did.

Playing the 16-year-old, slightly nervous aristocrat, she trembled exquisitely. In the scene that follows her kingdom's falling asleep, she was remote and ghostly, while the Lilac Fairy, her guardian, first kept her from her prince and then led him to her. Lilac was played by Patricia Barker, a guest from the Pacific Northwest Ballet and a lovely dancer. Her rather athletic American style didn't fit the restraint of this ''Beauty," but the contrast she made with the Boston dancers only emphasized the current company's harmony.

Among the guests at Aurora's wedding are a Bluebird and his Princess Florine, whose pas de deux is a showstopper. Romi Beppu was a dazzling princess; Reyneris Reyes, as the Bluebird, wasn't at the same level.

The men in ''Beauty" are definitely secondary -- cavaliers without personalities of their own. Even Prince Florimund, who kisses Aurora awake, is directed by female characters. Last night's Prince was Nelson Madrigal, who was attentive and deferential, brilliant in some of the technical feats, passable in others.

Getting men to perform as well as the women is a global problem in ballet. Meanwhile, though, could this ''Beauty's" Prince, who is otherwise handsomely clad in gleaming white, drop the black bow tie more suited to Fred Astaire?

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