Sleeping Beauty Dances through the Centuries

The Sleeping Beauty, by Fiona Fraser

As a young choreographer Kenneth MacMillan was famously quoted in The Times, as saying: “I’m sick to death of fairy stories.” Strange then that his sumptuous Sleeping Beauty should have become a mainstay of English National Ballet’s repertoire.  MacMillan’s great narrative ballets such as Romeo and Juliet,  Manon, Mayerling and The Judas Tree, are after all tragedies in which he  strove to bring real life drama to the unreal art of ballet.  Even though Sleeping Beauty is the most fabulously unreal of ballets, a fantastical marriage of magnificent music, virtuoso ballet technique, sparkling costume and scenery, MacMillan still revered its choreography. His own contributions to the production, such as the Act I Garland waltz, were intended to enhance rather than alter the ballet he had watched repeatedly aged 16, and described as the most magical thing he had ever seen.

In spite of opposition from American Ballet Theatre, for whom MacMillan created this Sleeping Beauty, MacMillan kept the mime passages which play an important role in driving forward the story in the 19th century ballet.  Anticipating that it might be challenging for today’s audiences, ENB dedicates two pages of its programme to explaining the mimed sequences between the ‘evil’ fairy Carabosse, danced on the night I attended, by Fabian Reimair and the ‘good’ Lilac Fairy (Laurretta Summerscales).

Originally conceived by Marius Petipa partly as a showcase for bravado pointe work, Sleeping Beauty places huge technical demands on the ballerina.  Erina Takahashi in the title role met these challenges with charm, creating a sprightly and carefree princess. Precisely paralleling Tchaikovsky’s music with her neat footwork, she also managed the heart-stopping balancing act known as the Rose Adagio, without looking as though she was holding her breath.

Petipa’s tirelessly inventive choreography provides meaty fare for many other dancers in the company.   Among them were Fernanda Oliveira, Crystal Costa and Ksenia Ovsyanic, who attacked their Fairy roles with relish. Laurretta Summerscales (nominated for this year’s ENB Emerging Dancer Competition) deserves high praise for handling the lynchpin role of the conciliatory Lilac Fairy with grace and secure technique.  Yonah Accosta , Takahashi’s Prince Désiré, appeared somewhat dwarfed by his frock-coat, but once it was discarded, was able to demonstrate the astonishing flying leap that won him the Emerging Dancer Competition in 2012. Nathan Young, who danced the Bluebird to Crystal Costa’s Princess Florine,  andAlison McWhinney,  a wonderfully expressive feline White Cat, showed spectators what they are made of ahead of the Emerging Dancer Competition to be held in March.

English National Ballet’s Wardrobe are the unsung heroes of the show.  Their painstaking renovation of Nicholas Georgiadis’s exquisite costumes was a huge task, essential to this opulent production.  The 100 years which pass whilst Princess Aurora sleeps are evoked by changing the costuming from the Van Dyckian slashed sleeves and plumed hats of the 17th century to the delicate Rococo designs  depicted by Tiepolo.  The consistency of the costuming makes Carabosse’s bizarre Elizabethan appearance all the more striking.

Whilst contemporary re-workings of Sleeping Beauty are entertaining, they can be thin choreographically compared to versions of Petipa’s original. With their Sleeping Beauty English National Ballet are caretaking the Imperial Russian classical ballet tradition and passing it on to a new generation on their tours around the UK.  This production might not please those looking for a fresh take on Sleeping Beauty, but it is a sumptuous celebration of classical technique and a rich vein of dance gems which choreographers have been quarrying for over a hundred years. Like the young MacMillan, first-time ballet goers will never forget it.

Fiona Fraser