This `Sleeping Beauty' relies on costumes for its scenic drama

There are many oddities in American Ballet Theater's new production of ``The Sleeping Beauty,'' but they're not the kind that add illumination to a celebrated classic. They don't even add up to a whole concept, at least as far as I could see at the Metropolitan Opera House on opening night of the spring season. This expensive new ``Sleeping Beauty'' has been staged, with additional choreography, by Kenneth MacMillan, who now serves as artistic associate of the company. His collaborators - aside from the original authors of the ballet, Marius Petipa and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky - were the veteran designer of colossal opulence, Nicholas Georgiadis, and the dance stage's senior lighting expert, Thomas Skelton.

Among them they certainly know how to arrange this kind of affair, and this ``Sleeping Beauty'' is suitably decked out in gorgeous fabrics, decorations, wigs, buckled shoes, and chandeliers. On the surface it's almost indistinguishable from a whole genre of 19th-century revivals.

Mr. Georgiadis dresses the Prologue in vaguely Elizabethan style, and there are hints of the court-dance form, called the masque, in the procession of fairies and their little boy attendants bearing symbolic gifts for Princess Aurora's christening.

Nothing much comes of this stylistically, though, and the choreography for the fairies' variations is traditional Petipa.

The bad fairy, Carabosse, is a Queen Elizabeth I look-alike (played by Michael Owen), which confuses the ballet's theme: that the benevolence of the monarchy can survive the attempts of bad spirits to destroy it. Carabosse makes a stunning entrance, all in black, on a black carriage drawn by bald-headed, black-clad attendants. Georgiadis uses black to great effect here, against the pink, white, beige, and gold of the court.

In fact, most of the scenic drama of the production comes from costumes. The traditional magic transformations scarcely occur at all. In the panorama scene, when the Lilac Fairy leads Prince D'esir'e to the enchanted Aurora, a few ropy vines drop down, a boat glides through some fake fog, and the lights go out, leaving the audience to its own imaginings during half of Tchaikovsky's music. We might as well be listening to the radio.

When they get to the castle, they find Carabosse and the henchmen asleep at the foot of Aurora's bed as if they were guarding her, when in fact her whole 100-years sleep has been invoked by the Lilac Fairy to protect her from Carabosse. The tableau makes a nice visual contrast, but doesn't enrich the story.

I often felt that MacMillan and Georgiadis were trying to expose some nugget of subtext we've never noticed before but didn't carry the idea far enough to show what it was.

Instead of revealing something new, the interpolations just distracted me. So did the huge crumpled panels of white paper or cloth that hung arbitrarily below the baroque ceiling in the Prologue and above Aurora and the sleeping courtiers in the awakening scene. They looked like props mistakenly flown in from some postmodern ballet.

These staging eccentricities wouldn't matter if the dancing fulfilled all the richness and power they're meant to symbolize.

Susan Jaffe, the opening night Aurora, is one of the best of the present-day ABT ballerinas, physically beautiful, thin but technically strong, and dramatically effective. I don't find Miss Jaffe a generous or expressive dancer, though. It's true that Aurora is one of the most demanding roles in the ballet repertory, but conquering it means something beyond getting the steps right.

Probably the greatest Aurora of our time, Margot Fonteyn, was in the audience, keeping the role's transcendent possibilities alive, at least in my memory.

Jaffe appeared so riveted on her own balance and line that she barely scraped together a glance or two for her cavaliers in the exacting Rose Adagio. In fast passages, she seems to move the parts of her body in segments rather than in whole phrases, and when she has repeated steps, she does them all with the same timing and attack. Her assurance seems hard won, not inborn.

Jaffe's prince, Ross Stretton, hadn't much dancing to do but yearned after her and partnered her nobly.

``The Sleeping Beauty'' is more than its principal dancers, and this production seems to lack the texture that's implied in a scenario that spans 100 years and has a large, diverse cast of characters.

Most of all, I thought MacMillan's choreography for the ensemble failed to expand or enhance the brilliance of the solo parts. His group patterns tend to knot up in little clusters of three or four, twist asymmetrically in snaky lines. They seldom fill the stage or give the sense of harmonious unfolding that can be the choreographic metaphor for social order. When he sticks to Petipa, in most of the solos and duets, we get the virtuosic masterpiece everyone recognizes.

At intermission, ballerina Tamara Geva recalled dancing it with Serge Diaghilev in the 1920s, eventually as the Lilac Fairy.

``The variations look pretty much the same,'' she commented. ``Except we were more musical.''

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