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'Beauty' dazzles with three distinct lead dancers

One of the balletomane's greatest pleasures is watching different dancers in the same role. Boston's dance fans now have that opportunity with Boston Ballet's ''The Sleeping Beauty."

In Boston's ''Beauty," three company dancers -- Lorna Feijoo, Larissa Ponomarenko, and Romi Beppu -- played the leading role of Aurora last week, and all will dance it again tonight through Sunday. They've already demonstrated that the company now has a trio of in-house ballerinas capable not only of sailing through the steps but also of creating distinctly different characters while remaining within the framework of a Russian-British version of the classic. This is remarkable.

Neither Feijoo nor Ponomarenko is a natural Aurora. Feijoo is a technical virtuosa whose balances and pirouettes made the audience gasp. Physical strength was the hallmark of her dancing.

As for Ponomarenko, she is so pale and fragile-looking that merely playing a mortal -- as opposed to a swan or a sylph -- has sometimes seemed a stretch. For ''Beauty," though, she transformed herself into an assured, altogether believable princess. I can't recall ever seeing her smile as much as she did in the first act, when Aurora has not a care in the world. Each of the ballet's three acts shows a different side of Aurora, and Ponomarenko, more than the other two, drew those differences exquisitely.

Beppu was the only one of the three who hadn't danced the full-length role before, and her debut came after the two others had triumphed. Her own triumph was one of nerves as well as of technique and interpretation. In that critical first entrance, when Aurora runs into the room and down a few stairs, Beppu segued seamlessly into the first variation, without the usual ''look at me" moment. It's a more natural flow. Nor was there any distinction between mime and dance: Throughout the ballet, she was just living.

Her solos were more confident than her pas de deux, probably because she hasn't had nearly as much partnering experience as the others have. In the Vision scene, she was more alert and aware than the usual Aurora-zombie, and that awareness made her fate all the more poignant.

Her musicality and timing were impeccable. There's a pirouette in the third act's grand pas de deux that, after several quick revolutions, stops instantly in a glorious arabesque. Beppu presented that arabesque as absolute fact, an unalterable truth. It was a thrilling moment.

All three ballerinas met the role's monumental technical challenges, occasionally camouflaging steps about to go awry. Some of the balances on pointe, while Aurora awaits the support of her next suitor, were quite brief and slightly nervous; Ponomarenko and Beppu sometimes almost slapped their hands into those of their partners, as if reaching for a lifeline. On a subtler note, the epaulement -- the gentle tilts, twists, and turns of head, neck, shoulders, and upper back that round out the choreography -- was more voluptuous and complete than I've ever seen from Boston Ballet. In this area, Ponomarenko's performance was definitive.

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