Review: Royal Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - Royal Opera House

Performance: 22 February - 9 April 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 24 February 2014

The Royal Ballet's Lauren Cuthbertson as Princess Aurora with Matthew Golding as Prince Florimund & Melissa Hamilton as the Lilac Fairy  in 'The Sleeping Beauty' Photo: Tristram Kenton, 2014, courtesy ROH.

Performance reviewed: 22 February

Of all the roles in all the stories performed by the Royal Ballet, Princess Aurora has easily the greatest claim to pre-eminence. This is not only the product of longevity – this being the 859th performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House – but one of culture and heritage. It was this ballet that Ninette De Valois used (in 1939) to demonstrate her fledgling company’s classical achievement, employing the text smuggled out of Russia after the revolution by Nicholas Sergeyev; and which the company staged when re-establishing itself at the Opera House on its ceremonial re-opening after the Second World War – and it was this same production that opened the company’s triumphant first New York season at the Met three years’ later, in 1949. On each of these occasions of great significance to the embryonic development of British ballet, the role of Aurora was danced by Margot Fonteyn.

The legacy of all of this has led to much controversy over the last two decades. Firstly in new productions that have not been well received. Anthony Dowell’s 1994 interpretation fused off-kilter Wonderland-style designs by Maria Bjørnson with the original Sergeyev text but this was largely swept away in the short-lived restaging by Natalia Makarova in 2003, complete with its Soviet antecedents and much-decried Cupid. Amongst the ballerinas portraying Aurora in the first week of that production were Alina Cojocaru and Tamara Rojo, both of whom would come to dominate the role, dancing Aurora in more than half of the 40 performances of Makarova’s ballet during its two seasons in the repertoire.

In 2006, it was replaced by a staging from Monica Mason and Christopher Newton that celebrated the company’s 75th birthday by recreating De Valois’s 1946 ballet. The opening Aurora in that premiere was Cojocaru, who also danced its premiere in the USA and in two subsequent revivals: altogether, Cojocaru and Rojo danced Aurora in 19 of the first 50 performances of Mason’s production. And therein has laid the dilemma. Cojocaru and Rojo are ballerinas possessed of an exceptional independence of spirit and a remarkable enquiry into their art. They have always sought to do things differently, to lengthen the phrase of a balance, to add a step here, to extend a line there. They were never likely to do it as Margot did. And so, their hold on the Royal Ballet’s signature role dwindled. They only performed Aurora in 13 of the next 60 shows and Cojocaru was not cast at all for the 2011/12 season. I say – without hesitation – that this was the beginning of the end of her career at the Royal Ballet.

This historical preamble is intended, firstly, to show how significant this ballet is to the Royal Ballet and, secondly, to demonstrate how important the interpretation of Princess Aurora is to the company and its heritage. Lauren Cuthbertson is not new to the role. Having been the Lilac Fairy in Makarova’s version back in 2004, she debuted as Aurora in November 2006 (the current production) and had danced it ten times before this revival (including a live TV relay, with Sergei Polunin as her Prince, back in December 2011). But unlike her predecessors at opening nights of The Sleeping Beauty – going all the way back to Darcey Bussell’s injury-hit premiere of the Makarova ballet in 2003 – after 7 years in the Royal Ballet School and 12 years in the company, she is nothing but the product of the Royal Ballet style. And – so far as it is possible to tell down the passage of all these years – she does it as Margot did. So, in this sense, this opening of the sixth iteration of the Mason/Newton/De Valois Beauty is something of a watershed: one where the dancer fitted the mould.

For Cuthbertson this was also a triumphant return after a run of desperately bad luck in terms of illness and injury that has robbed both her and us of so many performances over recent seasons. She danced with confidence and aplomb – a sleeping beauty returning to play The Sleeping Beauty – with her movements and gestures softened and poses that were disciplined and refined with traditional and elegant lines. The Rose Adage was delivered with great panache and although there were a couple of minor wobbles at the end of phrases, her footwork was largely exemplary and not more so than in Aurora’s complex variation in the grand pas de deux, where Cuthbertson played with the delicate music of the solo violin as if she were a note wafting through the air. It was an outstanding performance and one that, I feel sure, will have greatly pleased Dame Monica and the Royal Ballet’s coaching staff. The outstanding delivery of Tchaikovsky’s score by the Royal Opera House’s Orchestra, conducted by Valery Ovsyanikov, must have been a great help to the dancers. Rarely have I heard the entr’acte in the pause between Acts 3 and 4 played with such richness and finely nuanced detail.

The role of Prince Florimund almost qualifies for a day’s leave. He doesn’t appear until two intervals have passed; approximately 105 minutes’ after the curtain has risen on the Prologue. The dancer could probably arrive an hour after the ballet has started and still be ready on time. But this was an important moment for Matthew Golding, since it was his debut (in a full-length classical ballet) as a full-time Principal, having been a guest artist previously. He is a strong and secure partner, whipping Cuthbertson into the fish dives of the pas de deux with an unusual and surprising force, but I still have reservations about his own dancing: his double tours look awkward and the rear foot seems sometimes to drag. I felt a similar lack of precision with his arm movements in the panorama sequence where the Lilac Fairy leads him to the sleeping Aurora. He needs to work harder to get the softness of gesture and precision of posture that is required in the Royal Ballet style.

This skill in mime and gesture is held in abundance by many of the company stalwarts. Gary Avis made so much more of King Florestan’s mime than I can recall seeing in other interpretations: there is no doubting what he expects from his daughter on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday when he introduces her four suitors from faraway lands. And Elizabeth McGorian is just magnificent as Carabosse with every gesture a lesson in the art of mime. The sarcasm in her faked deference to the royals and the fairies is masterful acting. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel much command in Melissa Hamilton’s portrayal of the Lilac Fairy, which was sweetly danced but without the impact that the role requires.

The injury count amongst the corps de ballet was high, with no less than five changes from the cast list of fairies and friends. One of these replacements, Francesca Hayward, gave a delightful, faithful and fluttering account of the Fairy of the Song Bird. She is a dancer of rare promise.

The other less auspicious consequence of these late replacements was to emphasise the problems inherent in casting a ballet that needs so many roles as The Sleeping Beauty. Thus, we have Hayward as not only the aforementioned fairy but also one of Aurora’s rather mortal friends; Bennet Gartside was the English Prince amongst Aurora’s suitors but he is reincarnated as Prince Florimund’s tutor, a century later; and Akane Takada spans those hundred years by regenerating from one of Aurora’s friends to become Princess Florine (incidentally, with James Hay, giving a delightful account of the Bluebird pas de deux). These details matter in a story that is so concerned with narrative and they must be confusing to the younger audience members.

So, not all was well with this further reincarnation of the Royal Ballet’s signature work but it will no doubt help the ballet’s ongoing rehabilitation after more than a decade of neglect. I started with stats, so I’ll finish on them too: the Dowell production managed only 64 performances in 10 years, whereas the last ten seasons have seen 152 shows with Mason’s new-old production clocking up 112 since 2006. The Sleeping Beauty seems to be back where it belongs, at the very heart of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire and popularity. A great part of the reason for that lies in recreating the sumptuous original designs by Oliver Messel (augmented by Peter Farmer), and this opening performance seems to have found an Aurora who provides the human dimension to that vintage feel.

Continues in rep until 9 April 2014
www.roh.org.uk



Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for Londondance.com, Dancetabs.com, Dancing Times, Dance Europe and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK.

Main photo: Tristram Kenton, 2014, courtesy ROH

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