Fairy Tale Ending


Left: Artist Karen Kilimnik accepts flowers following the performance. Right: Dancer Matthew Hart as James in Sleeping Beauty + Friends. (All photos: Benedict Johnson)

On the evening of Wednesday, April 4, at the New Player's Theatre in balmy, spring-struck London—a former music hall next door to a walk-in teeth-whitening-and-body-waxing shop in a cheesy little mall on the Embankment called the Arches—I attended a one-time-only performance of Sleeping Beauty + Friends, a whirlwind of a ballet conceived and co-choreographed by the artist Karen Kilimnik. Kilimnik’s exhibition of paintings and thematically related mise-en-scènes was in the closing days of a deservedly well-attended, well-received six-week run at the Serpentine Gallery, which produced this event. The mood in the theater lobby was festive.

The instant I asked for my ticket, I was handed a flute of champagne and shuttled from one fetching and enthusiastic young Serpentine press person to another, until I found myself looking up at the high and convex brow of the peripatetic Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the gallery’s codirector of exhibitions, who had shepherded the Kilimnik exhibition through London and an earlier Paris incarnation. He was thrumming with excitement about the performance soon to begin: “It’s the perfect analogue to the rest of her work. I think you’ll see what I mean!” Agog with interesting notions, fun facts, other projects, polite questions, and pertinent information, he swept me through the now-crowded theater lobby for further introductions, among them to Julia Peyton-Jones, the Serpentine’s suave director, and public programs head Sally Tallant, something of a den mother (or so I gathered) to this elaborate and all-but-impromptu theatrical, who seemed to be quite beside herself.

Kilimnik’s ballet, a rigorous and turbo-charged pastiche (or “collage,” as everyone seems to prefer) honoring Marius Petipa, August Bournonville, and other demigods of the classical dance canon, lasted a little under an hour. It seemed equally to charm and to bewilder the sold-out house of two hundred and some souls, most of whom were probably not balletomanes, but rather artists and art students and art dealers and art consultants and arts administrators and curators and Kilimnik fans and—you get the picture. I managed to kiss the artist Georgie Hopton as she headed for the last seat available, but I could only glimpse her husband, Gary Hume, in the front row; I hugged dealer Detmar Blow but only saw his wife, the égérie Isabella, as the lights were dimming; and I lost track of the lot of them after the performance when I headed backstage to snoop: That was that for my after-theater prospects. When, just as the lights dimmed and the tinny music struck up, there was a ten-minute-long, unexplained technical breakdown, one could sense uncertainty amid the scattered titterers: Was this going to be some sort of neo-avant-garde ordeal after all, perhaps with long silences punctuated by onslaughts of, you know, sound? But, of course, it was not.

Left and Right: Scenes from Sleeping Beauty + Friends.

The sweetly tatty red curtains finally parted to reveal the most traditional of ballet moments: The opening scene of La Sylphide. Against the picturesque backdrop of a craggy Scottish landscape with castle, a melancholy James (danced by the ebullient Matthew Hart) sat in a wing chair wearing a red tartan kilt (claret-colored dance briefs underneath, answering that question), lost in reverie. The Sylph (a long-waisted and -limbed Kimberley Rawson) appeared, fawned, fluttered, and feinted, soon after which point the pace picked up, way up, and stayed there for the duration. Sleeping Beauty + Friends drew on the high points and nothing but from five warhorses—none of which included the actual Sleeping Beauty. In addition to Sylphide, there were grand solos and pas de deux from Swan Lake, Diana and Acteon, The Pharaoh’s Daughter (recently revived by the Bolshoi), and Don Quixote. The leading characters from all those ballets got to mingle and mix, as did the familiar musical strains. By the end of the performance, the dancers, never breaking character or poise, were all panting through their rib cages.

In addition to the three ballerinas en pointe (the precise and ferociously energetic Hannah Rudd merits mention), and the three danseur nobles, Sleeping Beauty + Friends involved the choreographic participation of Tom Sapsford; a recorded, scratch-and-mix-and-splice-and-you-name-it sound track by Kaff Matthews; and costumes by Stevie Stewart, cofounder of the influential '80s fashion label Bodymap, longtime Michael Clark collaborator, and, most recently, responsible for much of the look of Kylie Minogue’s “Showgirl” tour. The costumes were just great: ready and able to pick themselves up and trot on over to Covent Garden. The production as a whole was pulled together in only a few months for less than five figures (sterling). I was given the impression that Sleeping Beauty + Friends was in some sense a parting gift to the artist, a longtime student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet. (As she told me after the show, she had always wanted to create a ballet of her own.) This, then, was what you might call a billet doux with legs, a Kilimnikian construct—with its implications of romance and residual melancholy—if ever there was one.