Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 17 - 19 October 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 23 October 2013

Birmingham Royal Ballet's 'The Sleeping Beauty'  Photo Bill Cooper

Performance reviewed: 17 October 2013

Sir Peter Wright has tackled virtually every classic ballet, bringing the same painstaking attention to the detail of hugely familiar stories and tweaking them so that his productions flow with even greater vigour and clarity. His original version of The Sleeping Beauty dates back to 1984 but he revisited the production for a revival in 2010. Here, the biggest change from the traditional ballet (as performed, say, by the Royal Ballet or English National Ballet) is that Wright gives Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund the chance to fall in love with a gorgeous Awakening pas de deux, thus answering that age-old children’s question about how they can get married when they have just met (even if he has just woken her with a kiss). The choreography is not original (Wright had made it previously for the Dutch National Ballet) but it is a most welcome addition, danced to the gorgeous violin solo that was originally a musical entr’acte at the end of Act II.

Other major changes in Wright’s interpretation (dating back to 1984) are that the Lilac Fairy is a mimed role (her dance in the prologue is now taken by the Fairy of Joy); there is (as in every new production) a bespoke waltz in Act I; plus new solos for the Prince and Countess in Act II; the scene in which village girls with illicit spindles are saved from execution by the Queen’s intervention is excised without any consequent loss; and the Panorama leading to the Prince’s rescue of Aurora is now essentially a danced sequence, abandoning the normal boat or sledge for transportation purposes, which is a refreshing innovation (not least given that most of these devices are motorised milk floats). Wright gratefully incorporates two dances made by Frederick Ashton but all else, from the Rose Adagio to the Grand pas de deux, remains as traditionally choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1890. But then, it wouldn’t be The Sleeping Beauty anymore if these core elements were to be revised!

The production was enhanced by a delightful company-wide performance. Jenna Roberts made an engaging Princess Aurora, clearly grasping her renewed career with relish after a distressing period of injury. Her Aurora was more aristocratic elegance and less enraptured teenaged ebullience, giving significant expression to the Rose Adagio but managing to deal with the technical complexities of those killing balances while maintaining the momentum of the narrative with her four suitors, the King and Queen and their assembled courtiers. She is a dancer I have known but not noticed much before and that will change as a result of this mature and convincing performance. Her consort was one of the most princely and noble of dancers in Britain today. Iain Mackay makes full use of his long limbs to produce lines that are nothing but pleasing. His arabesques are a delight and he is always the most reliably secure partner.

The battle between the evil fairy, Carabosse, and her nemesis the Lilac Fairy, is made less even by the latter’s lack of a tutu (not to mention having her main moment in the spotlight handed to another in Act I). And it’s an unfair fight made even more one-sided by Marion Tait’s irrepressible performance as Carabosse. Many years of experience are brought to bear in stealing every scene she appears in (even when wrapped up in a cloak) and her delivery of the mime sequences sparkles with clarity. Poor Delia Matthews did her best at infusing the pared-down Lilac role with a regal dignity but she was, at least, supported by a sextet of lovely fairies, amongst whom Natasha Oughtred and Momoko Hirata especially caught the eye. Hirata was to shine again in Act III as the Enchanted Princess of the Bluebird pas de deux, energetically partnered by muscular Mathias Dingman in the sub-titled role. I could go on naming names but the point is that this was a well-cast production with strength at every level and not least in the close harmonies of the group dancing.

Philip Prowse’s sumptuous designs give the production flair without compromising tradition and the hundred year transition to cover Aurora’s spindle-induced sleep is handled with aplomb. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted here by Koen Kessels, gave a fresh account of Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous score (and I particularly loved the Awakening extension, which was played beautifully).

The Sleeping Beauty visits London regularly and one might wonder why yet another production would be a worthwhile addition, but it is. Here is a timeless classic, packaged in a fresh variation and performed with great style, elegance and respect. Incidentally, watching ballet several times every week does tend to cause an inevitable complacency. I spoke afterwards to an adult woman for whom this was her first experience of ballet and she was as enchanted as a child at a Christmas winter wonderland; now that really is magic on a wet Thursday in October!

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Photos: Bill Cooper, courtesy BRB

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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