The Royal Ballet's `Beauty' Myth

Despite prodigious talent, the troupe sends some disturbing messages about women

THE Royal Ballet's current season at the Metropolitan Opera House showcases prodigious talent, astonishing sets, and bold choreography. Nevertheless, its selection of dances conveys some disturbing messages about women.

The oldest and newest works in the program not only portray women as the drowsier sex, but reduce them to mere objects of affection and violence.

A stunning production of ``The Sleeping Beauty,'' Tchaikovsky's 1890 classic, forms the cornerstone of the two-week run. Artistic director Anthony Dowell hews closely to Marius Petipa's original scenario, using only a few variations by more recent choreographers. Still, he manages to inject a heady dose of humor, particularly in the wedding scene when the dancers cavort as characters from popular fairy tales.

Breathtaking sets designed by Maria Bjornson, whose credits include ``Phantom of the Opera,'' evoke the fantastic nature of the ballet. Dreamlike and surreal, they resemble something Christopher Wren might have built after gazing in a fun-house mirror. Among the vertiginous components is a magnificent jumble of Greek columns and a spiraling dome that doubles as a staircase.

Enough classical structure undergirds the drama, choreography, and musical score to hold the production together. Tracing graceful symmetries in time and space, the dancers help atone for a thin plot and superficial characters. Miyako Yoshida, Irek Mukhamedov, and Nicola Tranah - despite showing technical prowess - brought little depth to their respective roles as Princess Aurora, Prince Florimund, and the Lilac Fairy.

Derek Rencher, as the wicked fairy Carabosse, drew the ballet's only complex figure. Dropped from the guest list for Aurora's christening, he oscillates between envy and resentment with uncanny verve. His spell convincingly plunges the princess into a century-long slumber.

Stuart Cassidy's performance as Bluebird also merits special praise. His leaps cause him to soar without the mechanical apparatus that Bjornson used to propel the Phantom's chandelier.

However durable its popularity, the ballet reinforces a social ideal that would have women be off-balance and powerless without their Prince Charming. Until she receives Florimund's kiss, Aurora languishes in a hundred years of sleep and solitude.

To judge ``Beauty'' solely by contemporary standards would, of course, be unfair. ``The Judas Tree,'' a brutal allegory choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, cannot make the same excuse. First performed in March 1992, it dramatizes a gang rape by 14 male construction workers, a subsequent murder of the woman by the Foreman, and his eventual suicide.

Set in a dusky urban environment, the raw power loosed by the male dancers invites comparison to Jerome Robbins's ``West Side Story.'' Yet ``The Judas Tree'' yields twice the tragedy and none of the romance or humor of that star-crossed tale.

The dance offers little, if any, explanation for the rape. The murder transpires after the Foreman, played by Mukhamedov, sees a friend alone with the Woman (Viviana Durante). Jealous, he suffocates her with his bare hands and, with a kiss of betrayal, sets his friend up to take the blame. Remorse of some kind finally leads the Foreman to hang himself from a construction scaffolding.

More unsettling than its vivid portrayal of physical violence is the dance's almost singular preoccupation with the feelings of the Foreman and the rest of his crew. Virtuosic roles allow them to express with unrestrained vigor their rage, jealousy, and guilt. Whirling through the air with legs outstretched, they strike dramatic and angular poses.

The Woman, in contrast, seldom gains an opportunity to tell her side of the story. Her solo to Brian Elias's music is danced against the plaintive wail of a single oboe. Too soon the workmen rise and circle her, and a frantic drumming on the xylophone signals fear.

She moves in a kind of trance and seems to exist solely as an object for the men to manipulate. When occasionally she does ward off her attackers with kicks or slaps, her come-hither gestures send different signals. In the end, she is always overpowered.

Not all of the fruit borne by ``The Judas Tree'' tastes so bitter. Degenerate as it might seem, a pas de deux featuring the Woman and the Foreman contains some striking choreography. In one unforgettable sequence, Durante pivots around her partner's shoulder until they stand back-to-back. Mukhamedov lifts her like a cross he must bear, then turns away from the audience. Durante, arms splayed to either side, hangs upon his back as though crucified. The sequence is a rare acknowledgment that the Woman has suffered.

Violent themes surface often in MacMillan's compositions. ``The Invitation,'' which premiered in 1960, also dramatized a rape. ``Metaboles'' (1978) broached the subject of cannibalism. And ``Mayerling'' (1978) reenacted the mysterious deaths of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary and his alleged mistress, the 17-year-old Mary Vetsera.

MacMillan and his 15-year tenure as principal choreographer for the Royal Ballet met an equally abrupt end. In October 1992, during the first night of a revival of ``Mayerling,'' the Scotsman died unexpectedly.

``The Judas Tree,'' set in a construction site near London's East End, might be taken as a cheap shot at the working class. Yet a few clues suggest that MacMillan intends a broader indictment.

Artist Jock McFadyen's backdrop, in contrast to the scaffolding and demolished cars he placed on the stage, depicts the Canary Wharf office tower, a Thames-side monument to commerce and wealth. It looms dimly in the background. Strangely, when the tragedy has run its course, the tower lights up.

A program note quoting from Kahlil Gibran's ``The Prophet'' completes the thought: ``As a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree, so the wrongdoer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.'' It is a strong accusation, in line with a forceful and provocative ballet.

``The Judas Tree,'' unlike ``The Sleeping Beauty,'' offers no easy answers. The title promises a parable of betrayal, but MacMillan delivers pure psychodrama, a portrait of the rapist as a middle-aged man.

* The Royal Ballet's 1994 US tour concludes today with matinee and evening performances of ``The Sleeping Beauty'' at the Met.

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