The Royal Ballet’s current production of The Sleeping Beauty, dating back to 2006, is a homage to Ninette de Valois and her faith that Marius Petipa’s Imperial Russian ballet should be the flagship of her British company.
De Valois had danced in Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe production in 1921, when the ballet was called The Sleeping Princess. She kept the same title when she mounted it for her young Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1939, in collaboration with Nicholas Sergeyev, the former régisseur of the Mariinsky Ballet, who had produced Diaghilev’s version. The Royal Ballet has clung to the same choreographic text (more or less) in subsequent productions, however varied the stage designs have been.
Reconstructed versions of the original 1890 choreography by the Mariinsky Ballet and American Ballet Theatre look very similar to the Royal Ballet’s text, since they rely on the same Stepanov notation that Sergeyev brought from St Petersburg. Radically rethinking the 19th century fairy tale ballet has been left to contemporary dance makers, such as Matthew Bourne and Mats Ek, who have created their own very different accounts of the story.
De Valois and Frederick Ashton, her company’s founder choreographer, believed that performing Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty tests dancers’ technical and presentational skills and instils good manners, on stage and off. The ballet transports audiences to a magical real where benevolence triumphs over evil – a vital reassurance during the WWII years, when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet continued performing The Sleeping Princess at Sadler’s Wells and the New Theatre. (The production shrank in numbers as men were called up.)
The 2006 production reverts to De Valois’s 1946 staging with designs by Oliver Messel that re-opened the Covent Garden Opera House once the war was over. What looked mighty impressive then as decor is less so now, with a rather dull backdrop for the Act III wedding. The costumes, with additional contributions by Peter Farmer, have been brightened up and Prince Florimund now wears, however briefly, a dashing red frock coat that Robert Helpmann used to sport in the hunting scene.
The staging by Christopher Carr observes courtly etiquette, with the infant Aurora in the prologue given due prominence at her christening, as well as lots of presents from her fairy godmothers. The blame shaming, however, as the King and Queen pass the buck to the master of ceremonies, Catalabutte, for omitting to invite bad fairy Carabosse, is rudely done. Kristen McNally as Carabosse was glamorous and spiteful, a vicious contrast to Elizabeth McGorian’s gracious Queen, who is stuck with a pompous husband (Christopher Saunders).
Four of the fairies, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Mayara Magri, Claire Calvert and Anna Rome O’Sullivan, made the most of their variations, darting across the stage. Yuhui Choe as the Fairy of the Golden Vine (the ‘finger’ variation) danced underneath herself, barely moving from the spot. Fumi Kaneko was almost impeccably in control as the Lilac Fairy, with an elegant commanding stance, foot pointed behind her. The six cavaliers were in fine form, their double tours en l’air well practised from their recent appearance in Raymonda Act III.
Yasmine Naghdi was very much the adored princess, confident in being presented to four princes as a prospective bride. She was so precise in performing the choreography that there were few nuances of interpretation. She hit and held her poses, flicked her leg up on the beat, didn’t waver in the Rose Adagio balances: admirable technically, but unrevealing about who this 16-year-old Aurora really was.
With time and experience, Naghdi could appear more ingenuous in Act I and less steely in the Act II Vision scene. She danced exquisitely as a dream without seducing Matthew Ball’s Prince Florimund to seek her out at any cost. He was nicely disaffected in the hunting scene, dancing his ‘Is this all there is in life’ solo very well. Kaneko’s Lilac Fairy benignly sorted out what he wanted, instructing him to kiss the sleeping girl awake with a quizzical air of exasperation at his hesitation.
Carabosse was vanquished at this point, though her reflected image failed to crack in the mirror above Aurora’s bed. This production skimps on the prince’s journey to the sleeping forest, missing out some of Tchaikovsky’s loveliest music in order to get through the awaking scene and the wedding celebrations in Act III. The prince needs to have made a significant effort to break the evil spell before winning his bride. She has been waiting for him for a hundred years.
Act III went splendidly, after an awkward pause when people left their seats in confusion. The fairy tale participants were all rewarding. James Hay, Mayara Magri and Anna Rose O’Sullivan in Ashton’s choreography for Florestan and his sisters were exhilarating. The cats, Ashley Dean and Paul Kay, were fun and Romany Pajdak and Nicol Edmonds made Red Riding Hood and the Wolf worth their place in the party. Best of all were Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé as Florine and the Bluebird, airily commanding admiration for their speed and stamina.
Naghdi and Ball won pride of place in their Grand pas de deux, uniting two kingdoms and two centuries. Ball knows how to be noble; Naghdi was rightly radiant and imperious, a grown up princess ready to become a royal ruler alongside her new husband. This is the culmination of Aurora’s evolution over the ballet’s three acts, revealing the attributes her fairy godmothers bestowed on her at her christening. Naghdi holds the promise that she will develop into one of the Royal Ballet’s proudest Auroras; Ball has proved that he can accomplish classical roles as well as handsome characterful ones.