The first measures of music you hear in Tchaikovsky’s score for “The Sleeping Beauty” are dramatic, energetic, even heroic. You could easily imagine that they depict Prince Désiré as he fights his way into the castle to waken the sleeping Princess Aurora with a kiss. In fact, the ballet’s opening theme belongs to its antihero, not to say villain: Carabosse, the fairy who’s (inadvertently?) omitted from the guest list for baby Aurora’s christening, the one who puts the spell on the princess, dooming her to prick her finger on a spindle and die at age 16. Carabosse is the thorn to Aurora’s rose, so she’s not a popular character in this fairy tale. With her spindle, too, she represents working women — another fairy-tale no-no. In other words, she’s essential to the story, even though she doesn’t wear pointe shoes and her role is almost all mime. Boston Ballet, in the production of “The Sleeping Beauty” that opens Friday at the Boston Opera House, has cast two of its principal dancers in the role: Yury Yanowsky and Erica Cornejo.
The first Carabosse, in the Imperial Ballet production that premiered in St. Petersburg in 1890, was no less than Enrico Cecchetti, founder of one of the major ballet training systems, the Cecchetti method. Although he was 39 when he played Carabosse in that production, he was hardly over the hill: He also danced Bluebird in the third act. (At one point in the ballet’s gestation, Carabosse and her rats were to have appeared, presumably rehabilitated, in the polo-naise procession of fairy-tale characters at the beginning of the third act, but Cecchetti’s dual casting made that impossible.) Famous Carabosses since have included former Royal Ballet artistic directors Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell, and Monica Mason.
Yanowsky played the role the last time Boston Ballet presented “The Sleeping Beauty,” in 2009, but this will be Cornejo’s debut in the part. “I’m very excited,” she says. “What I see sometimes, not just in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ but in other ballets, dancers say, ‘Oh, character role, I don’t dance, I don’t do steps, it’s just mime.’ But it’s so important. When you put so much thought and energy into a character role, it can be incredible. You don’t have to do a step. Just walk with your presence and you’re already showing who you are.”
Cornejo and Yanowsky are, naturally, very different dancers. “Erica is such a powerful force onstage,” says Anthony Randazzo, one of the company’s ballet masters, “and she comes across with such incredible dynamic vibrancy, so it’s going to be electric, her Carabosse. And Yury has this extraordinary weight and gravity, and a powerful physicality and way of dominating space that’s quite intriguing.”
Randazzo adds that he doesn’t see the role as essentially male or female. “When I think of the way I described Erica and the way I described Yury, part of their presence has to do with their gender. But it’s really the role that’s important. Yury, of course, is wearing a dress. But I think he’s approaching the role as a person. He’s trying to find the truth of the character.”
For Cornejo, the truth of the character is beauty and power. “You know, some people say, ‘Oh, you’re Carabosse! The ugly witch!’ ” she acknowledges. “But I don’t think she’s ugly. She’s ugly inside, and she’s so frustrated and angry because she wasn’t invited to the party. But I think she has her own beauty, and power. She wants everyone to pay attention to her beauty.
“It is really hard, actually, this character. You have to be developing the character from the beginning to the end. There are so many sections where you have to be aware of the other people and do a lot with your eyes. When you do the mime, when you move your arms and you point to different people, it has to have a powerful energy, so people can understand it. You walk in there and you want to dominate everybody with your energy.”
Cornejo, who trained in Buenos Aires and joined Ballet Argentino as a teenager, also stresses the importance of acting as part of dancing. “I was lucky,” she says. “My teachers in Argentina were really good actors and actresses onstage. So I got to learn from them, and they were reminding you all the time that it’s not just a step; it has a meaning. Whatever you want to say through the step, you have to really mean that.”
But her Carabosse costume — “character shoes and a really long dress, and a cape” — is not meant for dancing. And the costume won’t include the staff wielded by some Carabosses in other productions, notably the Royal Ballet’s. “That makes it harder, because you don’t have anything to play around with,” Cornejo says. “So you have to use your body more.”
One thing she’s apprehensive about is Carabosse’s first entrance, where the fairy’s rat-powered carriage roars in and makes a sharp right turn. There have been performances where the carriage has tipped over, spilling Carabosse and making her look less than dominating. What’s more, this is the company’s first “Sleeping Beauty” at the Opera House, where the stage is smaller than at its former home, the Wang Theatre. “I’m really scared about the first rehearsal we’re going to have onstage,” Cornejo says. “Because I know that in the past they have had problems with the carriage. It’s nice when it makes a really big turn, but maybe here they will change the curve slightly.”
There is something else Cornejo would like to see change, too — not in this production but in ballet as a whole: the tendency to regard character roles as minor. “I wish more dancers would give importance to those characters,” she says. “When you see a ballet, each part has to make sense. It’s like a movie. You have to give the same amount of care and love to a character role as to a role where you’re dancing a lot. And it’s good to have all these characters where you can become an actor or actress onstage. It’s part of the challenge. At the beginning, you don’t really do acting steps. You just do class, you correct yourself, and so on. But the acting has to come, at some point, for dancers.”
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.