The Royal Ballet's THE SLEEPING BEAUTY was the third in an unconsciously-booked ballet triple bill and found us back in the front row of the amphitheatre circle at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. After the Royal Ballet's own haunting WOOLF WORKS and Matthew Bourne's entertaining EARLY ADVENTURES it was time for something a bit more classical, and they don't come more classic than Marius Petipa's THE SLEEPING BEAUTY.
Again I was struck by the actual history behind the production: in 1947 it was decided that Ninette De Valois' Sadler's Wells Ballet company would be the permanent dance company at Covent Garden - which had been turned into a dance hall during WWII! - and she decided that, to match the building coming back to life, her first production would be THE SLEEPING BEAUTY.
It was largely based on a 1939 production by Nicholas Sergeyev who had fled Bolshevik Russia in 1919, bringing with him the Imperial Ballet 'bibles' for the productions of the great choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Thanks to his actions, these classic productions have lived on through the years so, bearing in mind Petipa created his SLEEPING BEAUTY choreography in 1890, in essence we were watching moves that were 127 years old!
De Valois' production stayed in the repertoire for over 20 years but different productions came and went until the hers was brought back in 2006 to celebrate the Royal Ballet's 75th Anniversary and it has stayed ever since, using the original stage designs of Oliver Messell (revised for changes in the size of the stage and in new costume techniques). Certain sections of Petipa's choreography have been added to down the years by Sir Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon.
As I have said previously, it is quite odd to bear all this in mind when watching the ballet; we don't go to the theatre to see Michael Elliot's production of AS YOU LIKE IT which catapulted Vanessa Redgrave to fame in 1961 or Michel Saint-Denis's 1936 production of THREE SISTERS, let alone Peter Brook's 1956 TITUS ANDRONICUS - no matter how acclaimed a theatre production, they are rarely revived after more than a year.
Of course, The Royal Ballet can be accused of running a museum theatre but thanks to the consistent quality of their dancers, the ballet always triumphs - one had only to witness the stolid Bolshoi productions from last year to see The Royal Ballet's quality. The most glaringly old-fashioned part of the production was the over-the-top miming that passes for performance when they are not dancing: circling around the face to show how beautiful Aurora is, gesturing to objects, resting a head on outstretched arms to show sleep... it eventually suggested dancing for the deaf.
There was added drama just as the lights went down when Director of the Royal Ballet Kevin O'Hare stepped out from the famous red curtains to announce that due to the illness of Lauren Cuthbertson, the role of Aurora would be danced by Yasmine Naghdi and the Prince would be danced by Matthew Ball who had both debuted in the roles the previous Saturday. Both were fine, Naghdi was a bit under-whelming at the start but she shone in the famous Rose Adagio in which Aurora dances a dazzling solo of movement and balanced stillness.
If I am honest, I wasn't ever emotionally swept away by the story; all the pantomime acting and the odd pacing of the story - our hero finally appears an hour and 50 minutes after kick-off - and any ensemble number where the women have floral bowers to wave about always set my teeth on edge, but the quality of the performance was so high that there was plenty to enjoy.
There were fine supporting performances from Hayley Forskitt as the evil Carabosse and Tierney Heap as her good nemesis The Lilac Fairy while there was also exquisite work from Helen Crawford as a skittish Fairy of The Golden Vine and James Hay as the scene-stealing Bluebird in the final wedding scene. Tchaikovsky's score sounded sumptuous under the baton of Koen Kessels.
I am glad to have finally seen this important work in the Royal Ballet's repertoire but as the piece has occasionally been added to over the years maybe it is time to have a look at maybe making the non-dance moments not so archaic?