Birmingham Royal Ballet – The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty
[Ballet in a Prologue and Three Acts to a libretto by M Petipa and I Vsevolozhsky after Perrault’s La belle au bois dormant]

King Florestan XXIV – Jonathan Payn
His Queen – Victoria Marr
Princess Aurora – Nao Sakuma
Prince Florimund – Iain Mackay
Catalabutte – David Morse
Carabosse – Marion Tait
Lilac Fairy – Andrea Tredennick

The Fairy of Beauty – Jenna Roberts
The Fairy of Honour – Ambra Vallo
The Fairy of Modesty – Laëtitia Lo Sardo
The Fairy of Song – Sonia Aguilar
The Fairy of Temperament – Carol-Anne Millar
The Fairy of Joy – Elisha Willis

Act I:Four Princes – Steven Monteith, Robert Parker, Tyrone Singleton, Benjamin Soerel

Act II:
Countess – Yvette Knight
Gallison – Rory Mackay
Act III:
Pas de Quatre – Carol-Anne Millar, Angela Paul, Alexander Campbell, Mathias Dingman
Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat – Robert Gravenor, Sonia Aguilar
Bluebird and the Enchanted Princess – Joseph Caley, Momoko Hirata
Red Riding Hood and the Wolf – Arancha Baselga, Rory Mackay

Cavaliers, attendants, ladies-in-waiting, court ladies and gentlemen, heralds, guests and nurses, Aurora’s friends, gentlemen of the hunt, nymphs, musicians, guards

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet and Students of Elmhurst School for Dance

Royal Ballet Sinfonia
Paul Murphy

Marius Petipa, Peter Wright – Choreography
Peter Wright – Production
Philip Prowse – Designs
Mark Jonathan – Lighting

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 20 April, 2010
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Birmingham Royal Ballet continues to celebrate twenty years resident in England’s second city with a revival of Sir Peter Wright’s production of that mainstay of the repertoire, The Sleeping Beauty, first seen in 1984 and long considered as one of the finest in performance. BRB have taken up a week-long residency at the London Coliseum and are fielding several different casts. On first night, casting was littered with Principal dancers alongside Sakuma and Mackay in the main roles; it all provided a clear view of the company’s present strengths and weaknesses in terms of dancing, technique, style and presentation.

Let it be said that Wright’s sensitive production emphasises all that is great in the unrivalled lineage of this ballet in the UK. Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet companies, called upon Nicholas Sergeyev, former régisseur to the Russian Imperial Ballet to help stage the full-length work to re-open Covent Garden after the war, and the choreographic text which exists today in the productions of this work for The Royal, Birmingham Royal and English National Ballets remains second to none.

Wright was spectacularly abetted in his production by Philip Prowse’s unrivalled designs – superbly conceived for touring purposes – which nonetheless posses a grandeur and spectacular quality that continues to put other UK productions very much into the shade.

On this outing, however, I was less happy with the eighteenth century costumes for Act III (veering towards the gaudy and inappropriate for classical ballet) than I was with the sumptuous seventeenth century for the prologue and Act I. However, Prowse has a superb ability to frame and enhance the action which today’s designers for dance would do well to witness and learn from. Gold is the overriding colour for this most sumptuous of ballets, and costumes are full and lavish. Superb.

Wright tells the narrative of this familiar ballet with great clarity – mime is unequivocal and he has worked long in developing the relationships such that it never gets in the way of the dancing but adds texture to characters who can, let it be said, remain defiantly two-dimensional.

Thus Jonathan Payn and Victoria Marr are far more doting parents than usual to the Princess Aurora, and, with the Lilac Fairy’s prompting, they console the distraught Master of Ceremonies Catalabutte after his punishment by Carabosse. Wright’s only misjudgement is to include a pas de deux at Aurora’s awakening. He had done so in his 1968 production of the ballet for the Royal ballet, and back then he asked Frederick Ashton to supply one to music Tchaikovsky had composed for an non-danced interlude. The newly inserted pas de deux in this production is Wright’s own choreography for his production for Dutch National Ballet – it still doesn’t work because it holds up the action, and in this version, Wright, fluent he may be in the classical idiom, is no Ashton.

Paul Murphy led an over-brisk performance of the score; I am all for lively tempi – nothing kills classical dance more than sluggish rhythm – but often I felt that the advantages of speed and lightness were outweighed by a hurried quality and the dancers’ inability to hold poses or groupings, so frantic the music-making had become at times. Primarily, it robbed the work of any stately or ‘grand feeling’ – it felt as if they were all rushing through it as any piece, but The Sleeping Beauty is the acme of classical dance, the benchmark by which all classical dance is judged; it needs to breathe. Dancers were unable to show style and placement, which count for so much in this work.

And so to the dancing. Nao Sakuma is a solid classical dancer, and once the (in)famous Rose Adage of Act I was out of the way, she improved greatly, becoming more confident and relaxed – her Act III Grand Pas was delivered with panache. In a comment that is meant in no way negatively, hers was an ‘old-fashioned’ performance, embodying the qualities which were once held in such esteem in British ballet companies: restraint, decorum and an unflashy quality of dancing. Her legs rarely if ever stray up to the six o’clock position in arabesque favoured by so many ‘star’ ballerinas which robs the pose of any grace or beauty. She has an unforced quality which makes her an honest and modest Aurora.

Iain Mackay certainly has the silhouette of a danseur noble (height and line are good, and he has a likeable, ardent quality) but there are technical problems (his doubles tours en l’air in the Grand Pas all went slightly askew), and there needs to be more attention to finish. He is, however, a solid partner and a believable prince.

Blowing everyone off the stage was Marion Tait’s malevolent Carabosse – one of the finest interpretations I have ever seen. The embodiment of spite and malice, she dominated the stage at her every appearance – she was a great dramatic dance-actress and it is good to see her qualities undimmed.

More minor dance roles gave some cause for concern – the prologue fairies, whose solos are a stunning string of choreographic jewels were mixed at best. Carol-Anne Millar sped her way through the ‘Finger’ variation of Fairy Temperament and Elisa Willis assumed the Lopokov Lilac Fairy Variation as the Fairy of Joy with aplomb, but others were far less impressive.

Act III was seriously compromised by the fast tempi from the pit and a general lack of attention to detail – the two character pas de deux (Red Riding Hood and, especially, Puss-in-boots went for nothing) and the Pas de Quatre, while containing some impressive elements (the male duet was well executed with some fine footwork), was strangely incoherent.

The Bluebird pas de deux (far more demanding technically than the Grand Pas) was very below par, with Joseph Caley looking uncomfortable in the choreography and unflattered by the costume. Momoko Hirata – a real hope for the future – twittered inconsequentially. The corps de ballet need somewhat more rehearsal to achieve real synchronicity and uniformity of style and musicality.

In all then, a good but not great evening. We are, perhaps, too used to the stars of the ballet world attempting to blow us all away with their individual performances. BRB is not that type of ensemble, and always gives a ‘company’ performance, which is one of their great strengths and attractions. On first night, though, there was less cohesion from them than I would like to have seen. They are a likeable company and possess a production second to none; some tightening up of elements will make this revival really something to talk about.

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