In his authentic yet unusual take on La Belle au bois dormant (known, in English, as The Sleeping Beauty), Jean-Christophe Maillot trades half a title for the whole story. If your knowledge of this fairy tale, like mine, is based upon various iterations of Petipa’s ballet to Tchaikovsky’s music or, perhaps, Walt Disney’s animated film, then Maillot’s return to the original narrative of Charles Perrault’s tale will come as quite a shock.
Most versions conclude after Princess Aurora’s hundred-year slumber is brought to an end by the prince’s kiss; this Awakening being hastily followed by a grand wedding celebration. Yet, Perrault’s seventeenth-century story has these nuptials taking place in secret; a confidence maintained for two years, during which time the princess gives birth to two children. The reason for secrecy is that the prince’s mother is a flesh-eating ogre with a particular culinary penchant for babies cooked in a rich gravy! Disney must have forgotten to turn that page.
Not so with Maillot; a choreographer-director with a strong track record of restoring authenticity to danced interpretations of literary narratives. His ballet, La Belle, which premiered in this same theatre, fifteen years’ ago, picks up all the forgotten darkness of Perrault’s original story, while taking the odd artistic licence by – for example – combining the child-eating, ogre-queen with the old, forgotten fairy (generally known as Carabosse), who arrives, uninvited, at the christening of the infant princess with the petulant gift of prophesying her death from the prick of a spindle.
Maillot introduces his tale with film of the prince – in modern dress – reading, and then dreaming, of the sleeping princess; this filmic imagery gradually morphing into the live action on stage. The splendid visual appeal of La Belle derives from the simple, modernist and remarkably effective, set designs by Ernest Pignon-Ernest. A rising upstage slope and thick, tubular straw-like reeds, cut into pointed nibs, provide a polished metaphor to represent the wilderness of brambles and thorns surrounding the sleeping princess’ castle. The costumes, by Jérôme Kaplan (another regular in Team Maillot), are highly stylised and adventurous, including chain mail suits of “armour” and elaborate dresses with skirts like Elizabethan ruffs
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for such a different version of a very familiar story, I struggled to keep up with the varied narrative of the first act, whilst nonetheless appreciating both the spectacle and Maillot’s adventurous and attractive choreography. The first act begins in the world of the Prince, portrayed by Guest Artist, Semyon Chudin (of Bolshoi Ballet fame) and flows back and forth from this enigmatic environment to the world of La Belle, where the King (Alvaro Prieto) and Queen (Marianna Barabas) are desperate for a child. Balloons on the stomachs of the women in their court indicate the widespread norm of pregnancies galore and eventually, through the intervention of the Lilac Fairy (April Ball) the queen conceives; although her balloon appears to sprout from the royal crown.
If the first act is a tad confusing (and, in many respects, one could view it as a prologue) the second and third acts (separated by a pause, not an interval) rattle along at an exhilarating pace. As Beauty, Olga Smirnova – also a star of the Bolshoi – makes her first appearance, memorably, cocooned within a large, diaphanous bubble (think of a huge, transparent beach ball): a simple visual cipher to denote her protective environment at the palace. Meanwhile, a group of seven male dancers perform athletically around her “bubble” in this unique and fascinating version of the Rose Adagio. With tiny steps, pressing on the incline of the plastic ball, the encased Smirnova moved smoothly down the slope. It’s a particular skill that I feel sure was not covered in her training at the Vaganova Academy!
Stephan Bourgond gave a majestic performance as the Prince’s murderous mother, Carabosse, who prepares to devour her son’s bride (while the Prince – now King, following his father’s death – is away fighting a war). Bourgand’s Carabosse is a triple whammy of evil: the wickedest witch, Amazonian killer and the most sinister of queens. It is a towering performance brought to an end in a climactic showdown with her son and newly-assertive daughter-in-law (in Perrault’s tale, the mother/ogre is devoured by the flavoursome beasts she has placed in the cauldron for cooking the princess).
Maillot retains Tchaikovsky’s score for The Sleeping Beauty, although not in its most familiar structure, and he also appends the same composer’s beautiful Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture as the love theme for the romantic pas de deux between La Belle (in a revealing gold-patterned nude unitard) and the Prince, here danced with elegant, sensual passion by Smirnova and Chudin. The acoustic quality of the Salle Des Princes auditorium is excellent (with a deep and wide orchestra pit, not unlike that of the Mariinsky 2 theatre) and this mixed bag of Tchaikovsky’s melodious music was richly played by the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Kazuki Yamada.
As in Perrault’s tale, the princess awakens with the Prince’s presence and not with the kiss, which follows their opening “conversation”; but once their lips connect, they remain locked for a large part of the ensuing duet, which, together with Smirnova’s floating arms and the alluring sentiment of Maillot’s flowing choreography, invests the duet with an absorbing tenderness, as the Prince leads La Belle towards the screen that had earlier held the imagery of his dreams; the ballet’s conclusion coming with their disappearance through the fabric. Just as La Belle had begun with a merger of dreams and reality, so it ended in the perfect circle of theatre fading back into film.
Maillot has succeeded in giving perhaps the most authentic retelling of Perrault’s story in dance with his tale of love overcoming the darkest evil (and a cannibalistic, child-eating mother-in-law is surely a step beyond Hannibal Lecter). This is a ballet – like his Taming of the Shrew for the Bolshoi, seen in London, last summer – that gives yet further confirmation of Maillot’s unique capacity for theatrical invention.