Many people cherish the tale of a princess, a handsome prince and a terrible sleeping enchantment broken with true love's kiss.
Since its debut performance at Russia's Mariinsky Theatre in 1890, "The Sleeping Beauty," with music composed by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, has become regarded as a ballet in the grandest tradition, an ultimate expression of classicism and virtuosity.
Yet too often modern retellings falter, blurring mortal and immortal worlds and getting lost in a three act, three-and-a-half hour archive of old-fashioned mime.
Malcolm Burn, artistic associate and ballet master for Richmond Ballet, considered this dilemma as he prepared to remount the classic production for Valentine's Day. To him, it's a true fairy tale — a battle between good and evil where looks are deceptive and fantasy flourishes.
A masterful storyteller, Burn wanted to update the classic tale by streamlining the production into a more family-friendly two act, two-and-a-half hour spectacle. Not only would the format be more accessible, but the accelerated pace would allow him to shape the narrative and re-imagine the characters, redefining the vital boundary between real and surreal.
Nowhere is Burn's update more obvious than in his casting of Carabosse, the most wicked of all fairies and the thorn to Princess Aurora's rose. Traditionally the role is given to a male dancer and the character portrayed as an ugly old witch without a trace of femininity. The last time Richmond Ballet mounted "The Sleeping Beauty" in 2006, Burn played the malevolent enchantress himself.
She still represents evil, Burn says, or "what is malignant and everything that's wrong about us," but the old woman didn't work for him. In a delightful twist, Burn's current vision finds Carabosse more glamorous than hideous — as potent in her beauty as she is in her power.
"Why can't the most beautiful woman on that stage be the most evil?" he says.
Dancer Elena Bello jumped at the opportunity to breathe life into the vengeful villainess. Bello, who charmed audiences as the mischievous Puck in 2017's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," is known for bringing a dynamic vibrancy and intense physicality to her dancing. She's excited to accentuate Carabosse's "authority and majesty," she says, while hoping to exude a "presence that makes everyone shiver."
Burn describes a moment, months ago, when he was testing steps for the character.
"Elena was sitting there. She got up and did it and I said, 'That's it. That's her.'" He gleefully recalls how Bello leapt into his office immediately after the rehearsal to declare, "You know I want that. You know that's me!"
The pair shares a camaraderie born of mutual respect and sheer joy for this creature creation. "She's so good in [the role] that there could be no discussion about it," Burn says. "Now she's become an inspiration for me and, basically, she's just dynamite."
But Bello's explosive energy and piercing black eyes won't reign supreme here. Burn's version has kindness — to equal the cruelty of Carabosse – through a Lilac Fairy whose wisdom softens the vengeful spell that sets the plot into motion.
And for balletomanes anxious to see the hometown company perform the famous Rose Adagio, as well as the Bluebird, Puss in Boots, and other favorite divertissements? Burn is reassuring. "We will see all the great dance that ballet tradition gave us with this ballet," he says. "All of the major dance scenes are still intact."
That's not to mention the sumptuous costumes and sets borrowed from Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet and of course, Tchaikovsky's transcendent score, performed by the Richmond Symphony, whose melodic refrains will likely leave you humming on the way home. S
Richmond Ballet presents "The Sleeping Beauty" with the Richmond Symphony on Friday, Feb. 9, through Sunday, Feb. 11 at the Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center. Tickets start at $25. richmondballet.com.