Pure Ballet Ballet

Tucson’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ brings fairytale ballet to stage with impressive new male principal

Isaiah Sumler is the big news at Ballet Tucson. The company’s new male principal dancer is “impressive physically with a really elegant presence,” says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana. “He has a real star quality.”

Sumler, a Spokane native who trained at the Rock School in Pennsylvania, will dance his first full narrative ballet for Ballet Tucson this weekend in the company’s revival of “Sleeping Beauty.” The beloved fairytale ballet, now 125 years old, was originally choreographed by Petipa to music by Tchaikovsy; it debuted in 1890.

Playing the romantic lead of Désiré, the prince who awakens Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, Sumler will partner with Ballet Tucson’s longtime prima ballerina Jenna Johnson. The gifted Johnson is Princess Aurora, the princess who sleeps for 100 years.

“Jenna is dancing beautifully,” Cabana says.

For the last several years, Sumler was dancing with the now-defunct Company C Contemporary Ballet in San Francisco. When Company C was preparing to shut down, Cabana flew to the Bay Area to see the last show and after seeing his performance immediately offered a spot to Sumler in her company. He came to Ballet Tucson last fall for a trial run as a guest artist.

“He liked it so much he accepted a contract for a full year,” Cabana says.

Cabana also hired Company C dancer Megan Steffens. In “Sleeping Beauty,” Steffens will perform the Bluebird pas de deux, the ballet’s second biggest female role, and she’ll understudy Aurora.

“Both Isaiah and Megan are strong in both contemporary and classical dance,” Cabana says. The troupe requires both, especially in its annual “Dance & Dessert” concert, which always showcases dance styles from classical to modern.

But “Sleeping Beauty” is pure ballet.

The sumptuous fairy tale dance is performed by a cast of 85, including the company’s 28 professional dancers and apprentices, along with advanced students and children from the Ballet Arts school. Ballet Tucson has twice before performed “Sleeping Beauty,” in 2005 and 2009. Choreography credit goes to Cabana, assistant artistic director Chieko Imada and former company choreographer Mark Schneider. For this year’s version, balletmaster Daniel Precup made a few changes of his own.

The movement is classic ballet, with lovely dancing by the fairies who come to Aurora’s christening and show stopping pas de deux and solos by the Aurora and her prince. There are also folkloric peasant dances, a wicked comedy turn by the wicked fairy Carabosse (played by the always engaging Deanna Doncsecz) and unexpected performances from the likes of Puss ‘n’ Boots, Cinderella and Red Riding Hood.

The elaborate sets conjure up the palace gardens and the palace interior where Aurora is christened. It’s at the christening that Carabosse, the furious fairy who wasn’t invited, places a curse on the baby, declaring that Aurora will die at age 16 after pricking her finger on a spindle. And it’s here that the kindly Lilac Fairy (Taylor Johnson) does what she can to mitigate the spell: Aurora will not die, only sleep for 100 years until she’s awakened by a kiss.

“We’re excited about the show,” Cabana says. “At heart I’m a classical ballet dancer, and I really enjoy telling a ballet story. It’s fun.” lamus.