OF all the reasons for a ballet company to spend three-quarters of a million dollars on a new production of ``The Sleeping Beauty,'' probably the most worthwhile is the challenge this 100-year-old classic provides the dancers. ``Sleeping Beauty'' is considered by many to be the ultimate test of a ballet company's stature, because it calls for something beyond technical ability at every level. The corps de ballet has to create four different kinds of ensemble situation or community. Several solo-rank dancers are required who can handle virtuosic divertissements with sparkle and personality. And, of course, for the leads there ought to be stars enough for two or more cast changes.
The San Francisco Ballet has come through creditably in the first two categories with its ``Beauty'' based on Marius Petipa's original, staged and with new choreography by company director Helgi Tomasson and with sets and costumes by Danish designer Jens-Jacob Worsaae. The only serious problems in this beautiful and tasteful production came at the top. The company seems to lack star-quality principals - a problem it shares with other classical companies, including major-leaguers. Possibly the choreographic demands in contemporary ballet, which comprises most of today's repertory, just don't prepare dancers for the rigors and opportunities of classicism.
The opening-night Aurora, Evelyn Cisneros, is an obviously strong technician, and she mastered the exacting balances of the famous Rose Adagio. Or possibly overmastered them, holding on pointe until the audience shrieked its ecstasy. She was less secure, however, in supported turns, and in some of the precision work of the last act. Cisneros is physically big, and broad in her effects. She never struck me as the tremulous 16-year-old whose naive lack of caution throws a whole kingdom into a state of suspension for a century. Her Prince Desir'ee, Anthony Randazzo, lacked elegance and didn't seem half as infatuated with her as the four cavaliers had been at her ill-fated birthday party.
In the second-night cast, Sabina Allemann had even less sense of character and less technique than Cisneros. Her prince, Ashley Wheater, began with an interesting air of discontent, an unfocused yearning that mobilized into urgency when the Lilac Fairy revealed her to him in the vision scene. Wheater's stamina seemed to give out in the middle of the third-act pas de deux, however, and after that he pushed to the finish with brute determination.
Probably it was too much to expect, especially in the initial performances (March 13 and 14), for dancers to surmount the difficulties of these roles and create magic besides, but that's what you see on the great occasions. The solo dancers, taxed for less sustained intervals, were more satisfying. Both nights I especially admired the clean lines and elevation of the pas de six (the ``jewel'' variations), and the fairy variations in the Prologue. Helgi Tomasson has added a variation for the Rose Adagio cavaliers, who gave great spirit to their soaring jumps.
Featured dancers aside, a lot of ``Sleeping Beauty's'' charm comes from the ensemble, which must convey both the majesty of imperial power and the greater and more mysterious potency of the supernatural world. Tomasson's choreography for the corps, especially in the vision scene, was refined, clean - and unremarkable. The Lilac Fairy didn't stand out as a presence; she, after all, rescues the kingdom when the uninvited bad fairy Carabosse shows up at the christening and tries to curse the infant Aurora. Anita Paciotti's Carabosse, inexplicably renamed the Fairy of Darkness, was a sinister harpy accompanied by three swooping birds of prey. But neither Pascale Leroy nor Kathleen Mitchell projected a Lilac Fairy of enough authority or compassion to supersede this evil force.
Some of Tomasson's choreographic interpolations into the standard Petipa text seem especially well taken, like the cavaliers' quartet, and a contemplative solo for the prince just before the vision scene. I thought his finest contribution was a new Garland dance, which began with 12 members of the corps who were joined by six young girls. The women then wove circular patterns around the girls, symbolizing in purely dance terms the emergence of Aurora into womanhood.
Much ado was made in the press of Tomasson and Worsaae's decision to locate ``The Sleeping Beauty'' in czarist Russia instead of France. The switch opened the way for inventive costuming and sets in the 17th-century Prologue and first act: gorgeous velvet and jeweled decoration and fur-trimmed hats. In the 18th century even the Russian court was Francophile anyway; so we got panniered skirts and powdered wigs in the later acts. Other than a new number in the Prologue, where the women wore bell-shaped floor-length skirts, there was little hint of specifically ``Russian'' behavior.
``Sleeping Beauty'' will continue through April 21.